Eugene Robinson: Cheney sisters, separated over gay marriage

Eugene Robinson
Opinion writer November 18, 2013

Looks like the holidays are going to be, shall we say, a bit awkward for the Cheney family.

Actually, more than a bit. A feud between the former vice president’s daughters emerged into public view over the weekend when Liz Cheney, who is trying to win a Senate seat from Wyoming by pandering to the far-right Republican base, went on “Fox News Sunday” and declared her opposition to gay marriage.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

She said the question should be left up to the states but added, “I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.”

Her sister, Mary Cheney, reportedly was watching at the Northern Virginia home she shares with her wife, Heather Poe, and their two children. To understate, the Cheney-Poe household was not amused.

Mary Cheney responded via Facebook. “Liz,” she wrote in a status update, “this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree — you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history.”

Could be an awkward Thanksgiving dinner (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Poe’s reaction, also posted on Facebook, was more elaborate — and more pointed. I quote it in full:

“I was watching my sister-in-law on Fox News Sunday (yes Liz, in 15 states and the District of Columbia you are my sister-in-law) and was very disappointed to hear her say ‘I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.’

“Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us.

“To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.

“I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if, as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other.

“I always thought freedom meant freedom for EVERYONE.”

Poe would make a good columnist. Her writing is clear and forceful, and slyly clever. Note the phrase “as she moved from state to state.” This highlights perhaps the biggest problem Liz Cheney faces in her campaign to oust Sen. Mike Enzi in next year’s GOP primary: the perception that she’s nothing but an ambitious carpetbagger from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., whose sole reason for moving to Wyoming was to capitalize on her famous father’s political history in the state.

Which happens to be true.

As Poe ably demonstrates, Liz Cheney is also the sort of person who would not only throw her sister under the bus but also effectively do the same to her sister’s young son and daughter. I don’t think she’s going to win the Auntie of the Year award.

It’s enough to make you feel sorry — almost — for family patriarch Dick Cheney. I say almost because he has been uncritically supportive of Liz Cheney’s campaign, at least publicly. He and Lynne Cheney said in a statement Monday that “Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.” But the former vice president at least has had the decency to support his lesbian daughter and her family — and to wish her the same domestic happiness and stability his non-lesbian daughter enjoys.

Nearly a decade ago, Dick Cheney took what was then the bold position that it was none of the federal government’s business if gay people wanted to get married. Four years ago, he forthrightly expressed support for same-sex marriage. He’s still waiting for his party to catch up.

In that sense, the tension between the Cheney sisters reflects the larger struggle within the Republican Party to keep pace with a changing America. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia; Hawaii will join the fold on Dec. 2 when a new law goes into effect. The Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional a law denying federal recognition and benefits to same-sex married couples. Many of the states that ban gay marriage also banned interracial marriage until a sweeping Supreme Court ruling in 1967. It’s clear which way the wind is blowing.

There ought to be brave Republican politicians willing to lead the party in the direction the nation is headed. But according to the conventional wisdom, winning a GOP primary means kowtowing to the party’s activist base, which means saying you oppose gay marriage, whatever your actual view might be.

Liz Cheney has shown herself to be anything but brave. The irony, however, is that she’s still being attacked in Wyoming as insufficiently doctrinaire against gay marriage.

The Cheney sisters, once extremely close, reportedly haven’t spoken since the summer. What price political ambition?

Read more from Eugene Robinson’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. You can also join him Tuesdays at 1 p.m. for a live Q&A.

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