Vice President Cheney has a lesbian daughter who matters more to him than ideology. So on Tuesday he said that people "ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to" and that states ought to make their own decisions on marriage laws.
Cheney made his pro-gay statement on the same day that the Republican platform committee contradicted him, endorsing President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
"Attempts to redefine marriage in a single city or state could have serious consequences throughout the country," the platform plank read, "and anything less than a constitutional amendment, passed by Congress and ratified by the states, is vulnerable to being overturned by activist judges."
That was pretty strong language. But social conservatives were so outraged by Cheney's statement that on Wednesday they hardened the platform to be even more anti-gay, insisting not only on the amendment but that same-sex couples not receive the legal benefits set aside for married couples. The platform writers urged that federal courts be stripped of any authority to overturn state laws banning gay marriage.
Please forgive me for a certain skepticism. Cheney's comments made the front pages, burying the news of the hard-line platform. In light of the Republicans' strategy at their convention next week -- to put up one moderate speaker after another by way of pretending that their party is far less right-wing than it is -- Cheney's comments would seem to be perfectly on message. Distracting attention from this administration's commitments to the right is essential to Bush, who has been performing rather badly among independents and moderates in the polls.
So, no, I won't swoon over Cheney's dissent from Republican orthodoxy on gay marriage. But there is a more benign explanation of what Cheney did, and I offer an example from my own family to suggest that if you know and care deeply about someone who is gay or lesbian, you simply have to reject anti-gay bigotry, just as Cheney did.
My late mother was a devout Catholic and as committed to old-fashioned family values as anyone I have ever known. She also had a gay godson, my cousin, who was (and remains) as warm and generous a person as you would ever want to know. He loved my mom and was very devoted to her all her life, and my mother loved him back just as much.
When my mother discovered my cousin was gay -- she was, I think, early among the relatives to know this -- she not only accepted the fact, she embraced him and his partner. And she became a committed supporter of gay rights simply because she believed that any attack on gays constituted an attack on her godson.
I am certain that Dick Cheney feels the same kind of love for his daughter, and thank God he did not let politics get in the way.
As Steve Gunderson, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin who is gay, says: "When you personalize these things and talk from the heart, you're 10 times more powerful because the heart always trumps ideology."
Moreover, even if Cheney's statement was primarily a politically shrewd tilt toward the center, the vice president thereby demonstrated that the gay marriage issue is not the sure-fire winner in this election that many social conservatives think it is. Gunderson is happy with Cheney's statement, no matter what the motivation was: "I'm trying to find out if this is from the heart, which I commend, or if it is strategic, which I also commend."
I write all this without any hostility toward opponents of gay marriage. On the contrary, I have been slow to embrace the cause myself. I've thought that the country has moved so far, so fast toward a proper openness toward people who are gay and lesbian that it may be too much to ask for a quick acceptance of homosexual matrimony. To this straight guy, civil unions seemed a reasonable compromise.
Then I called my cousin Donald, who lives in Massachusetts, to ask if he would mind if I recounted the story of his relationship with my mom. He was not only happy to have the story told, he was moved because he never knew how much my mother's love for him had affected her view of the gay rights question. And he told me that he and his partner of 31 years had married on May 27. I have a feeling that my late mom, who believed in love and fidelity, is somewhere smiling about this.