“I have gay supporters. I don’t ask their sexual orientation though.” — George W. Bush to Larry King, Presidential Primary Debate Special.
Coming just ten days before the primary in heavily Catholic New York, Bush’s letter of apology for appearing at Bob Jones University (where Catholicism is considered a cult and the Pope sometimes called Satan) had all the sincerity of a deathbed confession. (The letter’s recipient, New York Archbishop John O’Connor — who literally is on his deathbed — didn’t bother to respond.) But that’s more than a national organization for gay Republicans, the Log Cabin Republicans, got following their mistreatment by the Bush campaign. According to a phone interview with spokesman Kevin Ivers, they aren’t holding their breath for anything better.
Ivers is still steamed about an exchange between Bush and McCain during a recent presidential debate, conducted on Larry King Live on the eve of the South Carolina primary. Some of the give-and-take got lost in the finger-pointing and recriminations of that freewheeling evening, but if you listened closely, you heard the sound of a subtle gaybaiting in progress. According to Ivers, it was just a hint of what has been going on behind the scenes for months. Addressing Bush, King brought up the Bob Jones appearance. The Governor declined to apologize, saying he would bring his message to anyone who would listen, regardless of whether or not he agreed with their views. King then pounced, asking the Governor why, then, he had declined a standing invitation to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans — while McCain had agreed to a meeting. Bush responded, “Well, they had made a commitment to John McCain.” There was the briefest pause, during which the camera focused on the Governor’s face. Before his handlers broke him of the habit, the Governor used to smirk after delivering what he considered to be a good one-liner. Now he purses his lips, and gives a half-second look which says, “I’m not smirking.” (Or perhaps: “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.”)
King switched gears, but the moment was not lost on the audience for whom it was intended. One was John McCain, who quickly responded, “I have no knowledge that they have made a commitment to my campaign.” A second was Kevin Ivers, watching in D.C., who hit the roof. “They are trying to rearrange the facts of what happened,” Ivers told Left Field. In fact, Log Cabin has not endorsed McCain (they don’t make endorsements) and did not raise money for him until after the Governor’s campaign had publicly and privately snubbed them. The real chronology of events (much of which has been reported in The New York Times and elsewhere), tells a different story, one that Ivers says is emblematic of the campaign’s scorched earth tactics.
Last April, according to Ivers, the Bush campaign approached Log Cabin as part of their much-touted campaign of inclusiveness. “Karl Rove and I were talking for months about [gay] issues. We were trying to give them advice. There was an understanding that we would not agree on all issues, but we were getting them very favorable press. We were getting them front page New York Times stories … making them look like good Republicans,” Ivers says. Most notably, Bush said that being gay should not disqualify someone from public service. Then, in October, an account of a meeting between Bush and a splinter group of Christian conservatives led by Michael Farris was leaked to the press, and Bush was quoted as saying he would not knowingly hire a gay person. Ivers says he went to Rove quietly to seek a clarification about the apparent contradiction in Bush’s stance. “Karl Rove said to me: ‘Do you want to elect the next president or not?’ That was his response, basically: ‘Shut up and get on board. Stop asking questions.'” Then, in November, Bush appeared on Meet the Press, his first major national appearance, and told Tim Russert that he would “probably not” meet with Log Cabin, even though McCain had recently taken up their offer.
“We hit bottom internally after that,” Ivers says. “People were so angry at Bush for the way he handled that and the way his people got more and more negative behind the scenes and in the press against us.” About two weeks after Bush appeared on Meet the Press, Log Cabin held a conference call, during which angry members pledged $40,000 for John McCain. But it was only after Bush refused to meet with them (and, as Ivers put it, “after Karl Rove and his campaign deliberately antagonized our organization”) that the “commitment” was made to McCain, not before, as Bush implied on Larry King.
But first and foremost, Bush’s nod and wink on Larry King was for the benefit of Christian conservatives in South Carolina, who turned out to vote in record numbers in the primary the following day. It was the culmination of what Ivers describes as a beneath-the-radar campaign of “sub rosa gaybaiting” that began almost immediately after Bush lost New Hampshire. “There were fliers saying that McCain was the ‘fag candidate.’ There were mailings of the press articles about our meeting [with McCain] to McCain supporters saying, this is the man you’re supporting, the gay rights lover,” Ivers says. “There was push-polling by the Christian Coalition using the Log Cabin issue.”
Ivers thinks Rove (who did not respond to Left Field’s request for comment) has steered Bush too far to the right. “Do they think they can sort of go back in time and sort of be the George W. Bush of last summer again, as if people won’t remember what he said and what he did? There’s a sort of moral blindness there,” he says. Not that he doesn’t understand why Bush went to the gutter in South Carolina. “After New Hampshire, there was open talk that … if he didn’t win South Carolina, his campaign was over. It would be the $80 million boondoggle, and it would have been one of the most infuriating, crushing failures in American political history. So they were gonna do whatever they had to do to win.”
HE WHO SELLS THE MOST TOYS WINS
During the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, Steve Forbes testily announced, “No one can buy me.” The test of this assertion is beyond Forbes’ personal fortune (although if Forbes had stayed in the race, Donald Trump could at least have made a bid). Cybercitizens who ventured into the realm of campaign websites, you see, also discovered Forbes had been the only major-party candidate who wasn’t “merchandising” in virtual reality. That his political ideas were in as much demand as his non-existent campaign tchotchkes led him to drop out of the race in the wake of the all-important Delaware primary (a winner last time, this go-round he wasn’t on the radar). Yet even the also-ran who knocked him out — the so-far-from-contending and so-far-from-the-fray Alan Keyes — is giving bumper stickers and cassette tapes to contributors.
That’s nothing compared to the stuff being hawked by the rest of the candidates.
The Bradley Store (www.billbradley.com) is easy to find, easy to use: no frills, just like the candidate. The only thing a dollar bill buys is your choice of four buttons. The webstore — although it promises “cool stuff” -is not terribly creative, selling the standard buttons, signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts and hats. The merchandise succeeds only in further distancing Bradley from the shouting neighborhood of Cool. Balloons, mouse pads, coffee mugs, and — the very apex of hipness — the lavaliere I.D. holder. The featured item, a navy sweatshirt with a small embroidered logo, concisely captures the campaign’s low-key aloofness.
John McCain’s (www.mccain2000.com) campaign has been boosted by millions in web contributions, and the team clearly views its website’s top priority as selling. As the site loads, a smaller pop-up window appears right in the middle of the screen asking for a donation. One of the eleven navigation choices on the site takes you to the “Campaign Store,” where you can get t-shirts, bumper stickers, the McCain bio video and a poster of the young flyboy McCain.
The pickings are nowhere near that thin on George W. Bush’s site (www.georgewbush.com). Bush has more knick-knacks for sale than he can fit on his campaign plane. It’s harder to find the GWB Store than it is to find McCain’s merchandise, but the political collector might find it well worth his while. (Bush’s campaign has long had an affinity for stuff: they gave away cowboy hats at an event in New Hampshire.) The store’s front page advertises spring water — “Prepare to experience a watershed moment in American history…” — bottled (as The American Prospect reported last year) not in the Texas Hill Country, but in Kentucky. The scrolling menu at the top of the page advertises the GWB black windshirt (“the perfect gift!”), director’s chair, totebags, sweatshirts, long sleeved t-shirts, rally signs, steel coffee tumblers, plastic tumblers, travel mugs, navy twill caps, children’s caps … and that’s just the tip of the cornucopia. There are golf balls, lapel pins, balloons, and great deals on bulk purchases. Throw in the free calendar magnet that comes with every purchase, and it’s enough to knock any recovering packrat right off the wagon.
Just as Bush’s decision to slap his name on any conceivable item seems perfectly in character, so to does Al Gore’s (www.algore2000.com) unwillingness to choose a vendor for his campaign. Instead, three different “official” outfits are selling Gore paraphernalia (though there is no Gore bong advertised, despite the claims of his former Tennessee friends). The products offered by gorealltheway and goregoods are fairly conventional — basically competitive with the Bradley Store (all in earth tones, of course).
The discriminating collector should head straight to goregear, the only official store in this campaign to offer embossed Bic Clic Stic pens (as well as the $29 genuine Cross Century pen for the ritzier set), cuff links, a tie slide, and the indispensable baseball cap with an embroidered back reading “Looking Gore-geous in 2000.” If only he had water for sale, we could ban TV commercials and hold two blind taste-tests a week: the Presidential Challenge.
A few weeks ago, the National Basketball Association congratulated itself on discovering that only 2.8 percent of its players — twelve of 430 — had tested positive this season for marijuana use. Since previous grapevine estimates had run to 60-70 percent, the revised totals (officially confidential, but leaked to The New York Times) seemed cause for celebration — at least until somebody pointed out that all the players had been warned of the scheduled tests in advance. That led to an obvious and embarrassing question: Did those twelve guys get the memo, or were they too high to read it?
But the high profile, sports drug headlines also obscure a more fundamental question — when did employers acquire some absolute authority to force their employees to piss in a bottle? Employers began by targeting “public safety” positions — airline pilots, long-distance truckers — but increasingly, the national anti-drug hysteria has conspired to make boss-controlled urine-testing seem normal: “You wanna job? Give us a sample.”
So there should be little surprise that in Texas, the reefer madness has taken another, more absurdly sinister step. The school board of Lockney, a small town forty miles northeast of Lubbock, strongly encouraged by Superintendent Raymond Lusk, has decreed that every student from the sixth to twelfth grade be regularly tested for the bodily presence of drugs. Lusk, speaking in the circular logic beloved of authoritarians, told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “It’s a long story, but society has just brought us to this point. We do a lot of things [now] that at one time we would say was not the school’s job to do. Schools have kind of become all things and our job description has expanded.” Lusk apparently considers his current job titles to include cop, judge, jury, and executioner. He claims the new policy is primarily intended to help the students resist “peer pressure” to use drugs. Under the new policy, students who test positive will be suspended from extracurricular activities for twenty-one days, serve three days of in-school suspension, and be required to attend three sessions of drug counseling. Faculty members testing positive will be fired immediately.
And in a particularly bullying flourish, any child who refuses to be tested — even with the support of his or her parents — will be considered to have failed the test and be subject to the same sanctions. That became an issue when local rancher Larry Tannahill, father of twelve-year-old sixth-grader Brady, informed the district that he would not sign the waiver allowing Brady to be tested for drugs. “What scares me the most, if I do not sign it,” said Tannahill, “they are going to punish my child for what I do, and I definitely do not think that’s right.” Calling the new policy unconstitutional, Tannahill has threatened to sue the school district in federal court if the policy is not repealed.
In a conversation with Left Field, Tannahill said that while other townspeople have privately supported his family’s stand, thus far none have stepped forward publicly. “Of course my family has stuck with us,” he said. “I’ve got some support, but there’s not a whole lot that are really steppin’ out and saying much. But they’re having a hard time trying to, because they’re trying to hang on to their jobs, and the people that come and do business with them. And of course they’re protecting their children.”
Tannahill added that on the other hand, no one in town has harassed him or his children (he also has an eleven-year-old child not yet subject to the new policy) for refusing to cooperate. “We have had teachers who have come up secretly to them,” he said, “and told them they admired what we’re doing. Kinda stuff like that, and I get people who come up around town and talk to me about it. Lot of them, either that or they call, but they don’t want to get completely involved in the situation yet — I think they’re all just waiting to see what will happen.”
Asked if it was initially his son’s idea to refuse the test, Tannahill paused. “Well, sorta kinda. It was kind of a mutual understanding. He knew I wasn’t going to like it whenever he heard about it at school. I have talked to him about it, before we kinda carried on much further, and he thought that we were doing the right thing.”
Young Brady was even more West-Texas laconic than his father. “I don’t think it’s right,” he said, “because they said we have to do it.” Had any of his friends been supportive? “There was a kid on the bus that said, ‘That’s good that you’re standing up for your rights.'” Was anybody criticizing him? “Hunh-uh.”
Tannahill says there’s still a chance that the school board, some of whose members have expressed doubts, might reverse itself (another meeting on the policy is scheduled for March 23). But he is not optimistic. “We’ve got some that have kind of wavered, thinking now, ‘Wait a minute, what’d we do?’ But I really feel like it’s probably going to go to the federal court to start with. They may change their mind — but I’m gonna tell you, I won’t.”
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed mandatory school drug-testing for hazardous sports like football, Dallas lawyer Michael Lenz (who is representing Tannahill on behalf of the Texas A.C.L.U.) calls the prospects on this case “excellent.” “The Supreme Court has carved out an exception for athletics as a ‘reasonable’ limitation on student rights,” Lenz said, “but the constitution clearly prohibits unreasonable [searches]. In Brady’s case, he and his family are refusing a blanket requirement for which there is no reasonable justification.”
Readers who wish to support the Tannahills can send contrib
tions or write to the A.C.L.U. of Texas, P.O. Box 3629, Austin, Texas 78764.