LAST MONTH during an interview on Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked George W. Bush if he planned to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group. "Oh, probably not," Bush replied. How come? asked Russert. "Well, because it creates a huge political scene," Bush said. "I mean, this is all -- I am -- I am -- I am someone who is a uniter, not a divider. I don't believe in group thought, pitting one group of people against another. And all that does is kind of create a huge political, you know, nightmare for people."
Bush's response, which was meant to avoid trouble, instead kind of created something of a minor political, you know, nightmare for his campaign. Within days, Rich Tafel, the head of the Log Cabin Republicans, had made the rounds on cable television, been the subject of a sympathetic profile in the New York Times ("Gay Republican Cleaves to the Party Despite a Bush Snub"), and given numerous interviews to reporters writing Bush-in-clutches-of-far-Right stories. In one, Tafel described Bush's remarks on Meet the Press as "frightening." Bush campaign aides later explained that Bush had decided not to meet with Tafel because he didn't want to give Tafel's organization any more publicity. If so, it's fair to say that Bush's Log Cabin strategy has turned out to be, you know, counter-productive.
That's assuming there ever was a strategy. Some Bush advisers have said the candidate was caught off guard by Russert's question and simply gave the first response that came to mind. This doesn't make much sense, in part because his answer seems inconsistent with Bush's instincts (as governor he has happily made alliances with groups further to the left than the Log Cabin Republicans). And Bush could easily have pledged to meet with the group for purposes of explaining why he disagrees with them. Then Rich Tafel never would have had his Times profile.
Why did Bush pick a fight with media-savvy gay Republicans? Rich Tafel claims to have no idea. For more than a year, Tafel and Log Cabin spokesman Kevin Ivers were in friendly, regular contact with Bush's office. When Log Cabin delegates were denied a booth at the Texas Republican convention in Fort Worth in the summer of 1998, Bush promptly issued a statement on the group's behalf, declaring that "all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect." When word spread among conservative activists that Bush was in league with Log Cabin, Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, called Kevin Ivers to laugh about it. According to Ivers, Rove said that while some social conservatives might believe that being linked to gay Republicans "will make us look bad, I think it'll make us look good."
A few weeks later, Rove faxed Tafel and Ivers a news release from the gay-baiting Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. "Is George W. Bush a stealth candidate for fags?" asked the headline. Below was a drawing of Bush wearing high heels and a dress. "Did you see this?" Rove said in a follow-up call. "It's hilarious." Back at Log Cabin headquarters in Washington, Tafel and Ivers thought that Rove's message to them was clear: Can you believe these gay-bashing right-wingers? Aren't they horrible?
Tafel and Ivers liked the message. Soon there was a positive article about Bush posted on the front page of the Log Cabin website ("Bush Takes Big Step in Favor of Gay Rights"). A number of Log Cabin members began raising money for Bush, some quite successfully. At the Log Cabin national convention in New York this summer, Charlie Francis, a close friend of Bush's, gave a speech urging members to support the Bush campaign.
Then, in October, the relationship began to fall apart. Columnist Cal Thomas wrote a piece in the Washington Times about a meeting that took place in Washington this fall between Bush and a small group of politically active social conservatives. According to Thomas, Bush assured the group (which included Free Congress Foundation president Paul Weyrich, home school activist Mike Farris, and former senator Bill Armstrong of Colorado) that "he would not 'knowingly' appoint a practicing homosexual as an ambassador or department head."
Such a promise seemed flatly to contradict Bush's previous statements on gays; less than two months earlier, an editorial in the New York Times had congratulated the Texas governor for having "no qualms hiring homosexuals." The Washington Blade, a widely read gay paper, noticed the inconsistency and ran a long story about it. The Blade quoted Rich Tafel speaking of gay Bush supporters: "They're like, 'Oh, my God, I want to work on that campaign and I could be judged by that standard.'"
Tafel and Ivers say that it was around this time that Rove stopped returning their calls. Then came the Russert interview. Tafel's theory is that once Bush had raised all the money he could from gay supporters, there was no political benefit to be gained (and much political risk) from associating with the Log Cabin Republicans: "They were in fund-raising mode," Tafel says, "and they ran a fund-raising campaign first. Then it became a policy campaign."
Karl Rove snorts at the theory. The real reason Bush refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, he says, is that they are media hounds with a hidden agenda and a penchant for embarrassing front-runners. (Bob Dole, you'll remember, reaped an enormous amount of bad press in 1996 as he deliberated over whether or not to return the group's $ 1,000 donation.) For over a year, says Rove, Tafel and Ivers demanded a meeting with Bush in Austin. "They were very insistent when the legislature was in session that they needed to come immediately. And it was all because there were issues in the legislature. Ivers was very direct about it: 'Rich wants to come down and have a dialogue with the governor about hate crimes.'"
When Rove explained that Bush was too busy, he says Ivers gave him a lecture about the importance of the gay vote: "'We think you're making a terrible mistake. There are 1,000,000 gay Republicans.' And they have their little litany about how significant this vote is and what needs to be done to cultivate it, and you know, through them is The Way." Rove wasn't impressed. "We've got a lot of gay Republicans involved in the campaign, on task forces and steering committees and so forth. But our thought was that it was not a high priority to meet with these two guys because their interest was in generating publicity for themselves." Not only that, says Rove, Log Cabin never planned to support Bush anyway. "They're doing a fund-raiser for John McCain."
It's true that Log Cabin is holding a McCain fund-raiser. McCain first met with Log Cabin representatives in mid-November. At the meeting, Ivers says, McCain's staff asked Log Cabin to raise money for the candidate. But Ivers swears it was only after Bush insulted the group on television that Log Cabin agreed to do it. As it stands, the fund-raiser is scheduled for December 14. Log Cabin members from around the country will meet over the Internet and make their donations by credit card. "McCain is going to address everyone by speaker-phone," Ivers says excitedly.
Howard Opinsky, McCain's campaign spokesman, says he is unaware of the fund-raiser, but makes the point that McCain has not been a noted gay rights activist during his years in the Senate. McCain (like Bush) opposes gay adoption and gay marriage. He supports the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. "On an issue by issue basis, he doesn't line up on most of their issues," Opinsky says.
Still, a fund-raiser is a fund-raiser, and even Karl Rove doesn't seem eager to dismiss the idea of reconciliation. "The governor did not say he would not meet with them," Rove points out. "He said 'probably not.'"
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.