LOS ANGELES - It was almost enough to induce a fleeting, kind thought about Ralph Nader.
Out of the blue, Al Gore has decided to make a humiliating example of a woman for the choice she had made of a location for a fund-raising reception.
Naturally, his muscle won out, but along the way Gore provided a telling illustration of the line, which he crossed, between ''family values'' and sick sanctimony.
This imbroglio involves, curse me for mentioning it in a family newspaper, the Playboy Mansion. It also involveds sex - a topic from which Republicans and Democrats alike recoil with the same absolutist horror.
And the allegedly offending person, the Hester Prynne of this tale of morality politics gone nuts, is a congressman rightly regarded in the Democratic Party as a bit of a hero because four years ago she dethroned Representative Bob Dornan of Orange County, who, in addition to his other sins, committed had raised the politics of misogyny to an art form.
Al Gore, quite rightly, invested his time on behalf of Loretta Sanchez when she ran for re-election against Dornan two years ago, showing up for a fund-raiser in an apparently politically correct location as well as at two rallies in the county that has always been a symbolic capital for California conservatism, but is gradually becoming a symbol of dynamic diversity. It turns out that Sanchez is developing into one fine congressman, indefatigable, and increasingly effective on national issues.
But now, because she had the temerity to arrange a reception for 650 of her donors at Hugh Hefner's mammary monument, consider what almost happened to her. At Gore's behest, with the guys who run the Democratic National Committee and its congressional campaign affiliate being the agents, she was to be dropped from her ceremonial honor as a co-chairman of the convention that opens tonight with Bill Clinton (need one say more) as featured speaker. She was also to be denied her moments of face and speaking time from the podium of this self-sanctified convention.
And before cooler heads prevailed, she was threatened with being dismissed from her other ceremonial position as a vice-chairman of the party, and official disavowal of her re-election campaign in what is still a potentially competitive district. These threats were conveyed last week directly to Sanchez by no less than Bill Daley, Gore's campaign boss, who should know better, being of the Chicago Daleys, in whose town the Hefner empire was born.
Sanchez's sins consist of the choice of the mansion in stylish Holmby Hills for an event, sold out at $5,000 a person, for the benefit of her political action committee (Hispanic Unity USA) that registers new Latino voters. It was to be held under a tent on the lawn, not inside the sin palace. There would be no Bunnies around, typical at the receptions held there that have benefited causes from cancer research to arms control. The National Women's Political Caucus has raised money there, as Rock the Vote has on behalf of young voters. Like, big deal.
The initial Gore reaction of disapproval a few weeks ago was ridiculous enough, but the move to squish Sanchez like a bug gathered steam last week in the wake of Gore's astonishingly successful and bold decision to make Sen. Joe Lieberman his running mate. Gore and Lieberman seem set on being the Cotton and Increase Mathers of the 21st century.
The hypocrisy quotient is gigantic. Al Gore has collected $1,500 for his campaign from Hefner and daughter Christie. Since 1992, the Democratic Party, Clinton, and other office seekers have received at least $100,000 in Playboy money. And that's just on the surface. All over town this week, Democrats are taking money in the homes of people who make dirty movies, movies and TV shows that market violence and sex, toys that glorify violence, records that celebrate hatred of women, cop-killing, and rape, not to mention garden variety polluters, price-gougers, and gamblers.
Gore's choice of victim for his symbolism crusade is instructive - a two-term member of Congress who is female. Does anyone think he would land like a ton of bricks on a male congressman with real seniority?
Sanchez has been magnificent in her stoic refusal to get drawn into this farce. Under absurd pressure, she was willing to find a different location if she could hold her crowd and its money, which will actually go for something worthwhile; as it turned out, a restaurant on the sprawling Universal Studio lot was located.
All campaigns end up asking forbearance of their supporters during the rush to the center, and sometimes the last straw is symbolic, if no less real.
It may be too late for an outcry to work. But it wouldn't surprise me if some high-minded money types in the Democratic Party started writing checks to Hispanic Unity USA and telling the big shot guy Democrats that the dough is coming out of their hides.
Until last week, what Gore was up to was merely dumb. Now, even with the kind of artificial happy ending this town loves, it's both wrong and revealing.
Thomas Oliphant is a Globe columnist.
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