While everyone was focused on the deplorable words of Rush Limbaugh and his subsequent non-apology, I was focused on a more sincere apology from a man who has shown contrition not just in words but in deeds.
Ken Mehlman took a lot of grief for coming out of the closet in August 2010. And understandably so. As I wrote then, Mehlman — as the 2004 reelection campaign manager for President George W. Bush — was a key part of a machine that denigrated the families and relationships of gay men and lesbians across the country. He was there when the GOP used the same-sex marriage issue to whip up the conservative base and conservative votes to keep Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) out of the White House. But I also acknowledged that Mehlman had already started down the road of redemption. He hasn’t given up.
In fact, in a Salon interview with Thomas Schaller last week, Mehlman said something extraordinary.
“At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort,” he says. “As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I’ll do my part to be helpful.”
Mehlman was blind to the impact of his pre-coming-out politics. But through his incredible work behind the scenes with fellow Republicans on marriage-equality efforts around the country, he was able to see its real-life consequences. And best of all, he has apologized.
The words “I am sorry” flow freely because he is unafraid to admit his transgression and seek forgiveness. There’s none of that mealy-mouthed “If you were offended” nonsense. “I answer them with how I honestly feel,” he told me in an e-mail last week.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in New York, Maryland and Washington state. Without question, Mehlman’s personal lobbying of Republican legislators in those jurisdictions played an important part. He’s working hard in New Hampshire to ensure that the marriage-equality law there is not overturned by the state legislature. He continues to serve as a board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is leading the effort to overturn Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage in California. And he personally lobbied Republican senators in Washington to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010.
Actions, not just words, are what separate leaders from posers, men from boys. And they separate the truly remorseful from those saying whatever it takes to get folks off their back. By this standard, Limbaugh is not even half the man Mehlman has shown himself to be.