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When Cheney Broke Ranks

By Marjorie Williams
Friday, October 13, 2000; Page A39

The question didn't mention his daughter, and neither did his answer, but you knew, listening to Dick Cheney address the first serious inquiry of the campaign about his views on the rights of gays and lesbians, that his response had everything to do with Mary.

He answered in the same uninflected engineer's tone that moderates everything he says, with the same reliance on muscular Washington cliche ("This is a tough one, Bernie. . . . That's not a slam-dunk"). Cheney has never been the kind of politician--or the kind of man--who is much inclined to wrestle with the messy human issues that wreak their irrational force on domestic politics. Give him a nice argument about throw-weights or force posture; give him a good procedural question to unsnarl in a room full of other reasonable men.

But that is precisely what made his statement an oddly moving one. Both Cheney and his Democratic counterpart, Joe Lieberman, gave answers strikingly more compassionate, more uncertain and thinking-out-loud, than they had in the past, marking a signal moment--a tipping point--in America's gradual acceptance of homosexuality.

And Cheney's was the more remarkable response, because it represented a far larger break with his party. It took several days for the anger of the Republican right to boil over at his apostasy in calling on Americans "to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into," and in affirming that states have the right to pass laws sanctioning some form of gay union. But it was already clear, or should have been, that Cheney's answer to that question was the biggest news of the vice presidential debate. George W. Bush's reassertion, during Wednesday's presidential debate, of his party's hard line on a range of laws affecting gays and lesbians did nothing to change the symbolic importance of his running mate's answer.

"A-ma-zing," says David Smith, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. "[Cheney] basically broke ranks with Bush and the extreme right by saying that he recognized that gay and lesbian families have a place in America, and that their relationships should be respected. . . . It wasn't a ringing endorsement, but it certainly was a stark departure from his past position on this issue."

Until that moment, Cheney and his formidable wife, Lynne, had refused to answer any questions about the apparent conflict between the Republican platform and their support of their younger daughter, who has been quite open about her sexual orientation. Mary Cheney, 31, who now accompanies her father everywhere as the "body" aide on his campaign, worked until recently as a liaison to the gay and lesbian community for the Coors Brewing Co. She has lived for years with a female partner, and wears a gold band on the ring finger of her left hand. Yet the press has been largely frightened off the issue by the Cheneys' claims of privacy, and gay activists have expressed huge frustration at what they saw as the muzzling of Mary Cheney.

But moderator Bernard Shaw was smart enough to couch the question as a simple matter of public policy rather than as a veiled charge of hypocrisy; Cheney could hardly refuse to answer. And, faced with a choice, he chose a response that honored his love for his child.

It is still possible, if you're so inclined, to call Dick Cheney a hypocrite. As Smith notes, it is not as though Cheney has gone out of his way to denounce his party's official intolerance of gays. He is still running on a platform that calls for a federal ban on any form of gay union, as the running mate of a man who believes homosexuals should be ineligible to adopt children. Asked in the days after the debate to defend his remarks there, Cheney reverted to phlegmatic form, saying that he had answered the question "truthfully and accurately," but that if elected he would support his president's more conservative policies.

But gay activists have wisely decided to take yes for an answer, saluting Cheney for the fact that, when asked a direct question, he spoke with integrity and decency. Under most circumstances, it can drive you crazy to watch a politician see the light on some policy issue because of its sudden application to a member of his family. But public policy toward gays and lesbians is quintessentially an issue driven by personal experience, as more and more straight Americans come to know that people they love are gay.

Thus Cheney's partial, almost grudging call for acceptance makes him a fitting model for this moment, on this question. The center is shifting because millions of Dick Cheneys, people in the middle who might prefer not to think about the rights of gays and lesbians, one day see the issue indelibly stamped with the faces of their daughters, sons, neighbors and friends.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company