The Magazine

Log Cabin Blues

Bush, McCain, and the controversy over gay Republicans

Dec 20, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 14 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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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.'"