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The journalist who revealed Ken Mehlman's secret

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 10:09 AM

Marc Ambinder, the political junkie who writes for the Atlantic, says he suspected, like lots of insiders, that Ken Mehlman was gay.

In fact, years before the former Republican Party chairman acknowledged his sexuality to Ambinder in an interview published Wednesday, the reporter tried to find out. And, says Ambinder, he would have outed Mehlman if he had evidence.

"I would have reported it because he was in power at a time when the Republican Party was whipping up anti-gay sentiment to get votes," Ambinder says in an interview. "I'm very squeamish about outing anyone. That squeamishness certainly would have gone into the equation. But there would have been a clear and compelling reason. Even though outing would have encroached on his personal dignity, which would have made me uncomfortable, it would have been the right thing to do to hold someone in power accountable."

The scoop was essentially handed to Ambinder. Mehlman, displaying the political acumen of the man who ran George W. Bush's reelection campaign, assembled a team of friends and advisers to manage his coming out. One member of the team approached Ambinder several weeks ago to gauge his interest in the story. Mehlman told Ambinder that it "has taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life" and that he wants to become an advocate for same-sex marriage.

Ambinder, 32, who is also CBS's chief political consultant, is a classic behind-the-scenes guy who intuitively understands the nuts and bolts of the game. Having honed his art at ABC and the Hotline, the Harvard graduate has been raising his profile with his daily posts on Atlantic's Web site and with a constant Twitter feed.

"He is a complete newshound," says Bob Cohn, editorial director for Atlantic Digital, noting that Ambinder keeps a police scanner in his office. "He's a one-man band, out there breaking stories and then doing the analysis and commentary. . . . When I send an e-mail at midnight, a response comes back at 12:05."

Ambinder has also gone public with a sensitive subject, his long-running battle with obesity. "When I was fat, I avoided meeting people's eyes. I didn't want to subject them to my ugliness," he wrote in the Atlantic last spring. With the help of stomach-shrinking bariatric surgery, he dropped from 235 pounds to 150.

Ambinder freely admits that he identified with Mehlman's struggle. "I'm a reporter who happens to be gay, and I've been out for 14 years," he says. "Ken has known that I'm gay. He may have felt I would be, if not sympathetic, that I would give him a fair airing, which I think I did."

Ambinder also mentioned what he described as sheer coincidence, that he himself got married in the District last weekend to his longtime partner, a business consultant.

During the interview, Ambinder pressed Mehlman on the timing of his disclosure. The former party chairman conceded that had he come out earlier he could have tried to stop the Republicans from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

Asked about Mehlman's contention that he came to a conclusion about his sexuality fairly recently, Ambinder says others have been skeptical: "That is the question -- do you believe him? He simply was not ready to come to terms with his sexual identity. Or has he known he was gay for a long time and just wanted to wait until the price for him coming out wouldn't be punitive? . . . That's not an excuse for not manning up and expediting the process."

In his piece, Ambinder said Mehlman told him in off-the-record discussions over the years of his efforts to defuse GOP attempts to attack same-sex marriage. In 2004, Bush's campaign pushed a constitutional amendment to ban such marriages.

But Ambinder insists that while he "had the same suspicions as everyone else," the unmarried Mehlman never told Ambinder he was gay, even after a 2006 attempt by gay-rights activist Mike Rogers to out him. The people around Mehlman, now an executive with the private-equity firm KKR, didn't know either, says Ambinder. Mehlman now admits to having misled people about the subject.

Had Ambinder tried to report on his own that Mehlman was gay, Cohn says, "that might have been a harder decision, but that wasn't the question we were faced with. We didn't out Ken Mehlman. Ken Mehlman was ready to talk about his sexuality."

Note: I've said that Mehlman's situation was an open secret. I meant it was one of those things that many journalists and political types believed to be true, but no one knew for sure. Even leaving aside the ethical question of outing someone against his will, it couldn't have been reported because there was no proof that Mehlman was in fact gay. And sometimes something that "everyone knows" turns out not to be true.

At Slate, William Saletan calls the story "a big deal. Mehlman managed President George W. Bush's reelection campaign in 2004 and chaired the Republican National Committee from 2005 to 2007. Many influential Republicans have worked with him and respect him. He makes it harder for them to think of homosexuality as a behavior. They now know somebody who is gay. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, they now know that they know somebody who is gay.

"That's important, because if you look at polls over the last 30 or 40 years, two factors have been driving public opinion in the direction of gay rights. One is whether you know someone who's openly gay. More and more people do, and those who do are more tolerant of homosexuality. The other factor is whether you think it's involuntary. This belief, too, has increased over time, and tolerance has increased with it. It's pretty hard to imagine that the guy who ran the GOP during its recent campaigns against gay marriage would come out as homosexual unless he felt he had no choice. This is simply who he is."

Allahpundit sounds skeptical about Mehlman's explanation:

"He says he realized it 'fairly recently,' in Marc Ambinder's words, which has Tammy Bruce chuckling on Twitter. Honestly, I thought the guy came out years ago. Remember when Bill Maher talked about the rumors surrounding him on Larry King's show -- back in 2006? I guess you were the last to know, Ken.

"He's doing this now, it seems, because he wants to drum up publicity for the cause of gay marriage and figures that "Republican whom everyone thought was gay actually is gay" headlines will do the trick."

At Americablog, Joe Sudbay sees history being airbrushed:

"This deification of Ken Mehlman over his recently discovered homosexuality is already getting absurd.

"Michael Luo from the New York Times absolved Ken Mehlman from any involvement in George Bush's fiercely homophobic campaign back in 2004:

"Mr. Mehlman was in Mr. Bush's inner circle in both presidential campaigns, and ran his campaign in 2004. But Mr. Mehlman, in his work as chairman of the Republican National Committee and as head of Mr. Bush's campaign, tended to avoid social issues, arguing that they would undercut the Republican Party's efforts to expand its appeal.

"I'm not sure how Mr. Luo determined the Mehlman 'tended to avoid social issues.' Maybe Luo took Mr. Mehlman at his word (just like reporters took Mehlman at his word when he said he wasn't gay.)"

Holding the House

How bad will November be for the Dems? Real bad, say Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Alex Eisenstadt in Politico:

"In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

"They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a 'recovery summer' is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble. . . .

"A Democratic pollster working on several key races said, 'The reality is that [the House majority] is probably gone.' His data show the Democrats' problems are only getting worse. 'It's spreading,' the pollster said."

But wait! Hotline reaches a different conclusion in this Reid Wilson piece:

"House Republicans are measuring the drapes in preparation for big gains in the lower chamber, convinced that Minority Leader John Boehner is going to become the next Speaker of the House. On a macro level, that wouldn't be a bad guess -- Democrats are saddled with bad polls and unpopular leaders, and the national mood wants a change from the status quo.

"But the Democratic apocalypse isn't guaranteed just yet. In fact, senior Democratic strategists say they're not only likely to keep the House, but they believe the GOP won't come close to gaining the 39 seats they need to take over."

Whom to believe?

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen calls the Politico piece nothing new: "Indeed, many of us could have sketched out the entire article in our heads before reading it. The question the Politico didn't get to is what Democrats plan to do about their predicament.

"The article said there are competing strategies about the elections, but Dems 'mostly agree there are few good options beyond grinding it out in each individual race.' There may be limited 'good options,' but there are options. For example there are Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and Dems could use the limited legislative calendar to push strong bills -- job creation, small businesses, repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' energy -- that voters might like, and which might motivate the Democratic base to turn out.

"Sure, Republicans will oppose everything, and will very likely prevent votes in the Senate. But there's nothing wrong with putting up a fight, showing voters the party's priorities, forcing the GOP to cast tough votes shortly before an election, and giving the party something to be excited about."

With two months to go, I don't see it happening.

The Muslim question

In the New Republic, John McWhorter is unperturbed by that recent poll:

"Who cares whether one in five people think Barack Obama is a Muslim?

"Yes, that's even more people than a couple of years ago, based on results from a Pew Research Center poll last week. But even so, though this misconception is a personal insult to a president many of us think warmly of, does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things?

"Because the grand scheme is what should be on our minds, not score-settling and mud-slinging in the present moment. The foot-stomping frustration over the notion of Obama as Muslim -- complete with the now-standard verbal footnote 'And what would be wrong with it even if he was!' -- is giving too much attention to the mere. . . .

"I'd argue that these people simply don't matter. Most people who think Obama is a Muslim are vanishingly unlikely to vote for him. Even among Independents, how many will vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 -- or even a Republican congressional candidate this year -- out of pique at Obama's having turned out to be a Muslim, as opposed to his decisions on much more important issues, like the economy?"

Backing Dad

Meghan McCain blogs about her father's primary win in Arizona:

"Of the events that I witnessed during the race both locally and in the media, the most telling thing of all is just how much of a threat my father's presence in the Senate still remains. My father hasn't changed. The media bias has. Many politicians and media pundits are clearly aware of his continued power and influence and would have loved nothing more than to see his long, accomplished career end during this election cycle.

"At the end of the day, no matter how Arizona and Arizonans have been misrepresented in the media, they chose my father because of his reputation, commitment to his country, and record of outweighing the mudslinging and fearmongering."

It's true that McCain went from being a media darling in 2000 to a media piƱata at times in 2008, and has drawn plenty of critical commentary for moving right in his battle against J.D. Hayworth. But he did move right, on such issues as immigration, and that's part of the story.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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