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Campaign ’04: Gay Politics: Who Gets to Talk About Mary Cheney?

4 minute read
Matthew Cooper

As John Kerry paused and uttered the word lesbian in last week’s presidential debate, the dials started to turn. Frank Luntz, a former Republican pollster who now has corporate clients, was with a group of uncommitted voters just two miles from the Tempe, Ariz., debate site. The 23 members of the “dial group” had a knob they could turn to indicate their approval or disapproval of what the candidates were saying. When the Democratic nominee noted the sexual orientation of Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary, to a person, they thought the remark was odd, jarring. “People thought it was uncalled for,” Luntz found. In an ABC News poll, 2 of 3 voters said Kerry’s reference to Mary Cheney was inappropriate, though 57% agreed with the larger point he was making–that homosexuals don’t choose to be gay but rather are being “who they felt God had made them.”

Though Cheney and his wife denounced Kerry for his comment, the Vice President had earlier put his daughter’s sexuality squarely in the public arena. When asked in August about gay marriage, Cheney said, “Lynne and I have a gay daughter,” before going on to note that it was the President–who supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage–who sets policy. In the vice-presidential debate, Cheney had genially acknowledged the remarks of Senator John Edwards after he complimented the Cheneys for standing by their “gay daughter.” Friends of the Cheneys insist that the Vice President was actually peeved by Edwards’ remark, but chose to hold his tongue. “He was ostensibly being gracious,” said a Cheney ally. “But he was really saying, ‘You’re a punk.'”

Just what got the Cheneys so furious with Kerry was not clear. Lynne Cheney denounced Kerry in personal terms rarely deployed in American politics, let alone by a candidate’s spouse, saying she could only conclude “this is not a good man.” Mary, 35, has long avoided attention. “She doesn’t like to have the limelight on her,” says a friend. The younger Cheney daughter is a Westerner through and through who loves snowboarding and fishing (like her dad) and, until the 2004 race began, lived outside Denver with her longtime partner Heather Poe. But her being gay has long been public knowledge. It is part of almost every media profile of the Cheney family, and has sometimes defined her professional life: she was the Coors Brewing Co.’s liaison to the gay community from 1994 to 2000.

The family could hardly expect to protect Mary’s privacy once she began running her father’s operations at the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign last year. A shrewd problem solver, she is considered one of his closest political advisers. Still, some conservatives were furious that Kerry went out of his way to mention Mary’s lesbianism because they saw it as a way to embarrass the Republican ticket or alienate it from its evangelical base. It was an “attempt to suppress a certain segment of Christian votes,” says Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate and a leading advocate of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Lynne Cheney called it “a cheap and tawdry political trick.”

John Edwards’ wife Elizabeth had another theory to explain Lynne Cheney’s reaction. “I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences,” Edwards said in an ABC radio interview. But there’s no evidence that the Cheneys have treated their daughter with shame. After the vice-presidential debate, Mary and Heather both went up on stage with the rest of the family while the TV cameras were still rolling. Later Kerry said that he had meant to hail the Cheneys as an example of “the way strong families deal with this issue,” though he had said nothing about the family.

Meanwhile, Mary Cheney sits quietly at the center of the storm, friends say. She has told them, according to one, “that she doesn’t want to be the poster girl for anybody else’s causes.”–By Matthew Cooper

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