Readers of The Washington Post and the New York Times who have been following John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings learned plenty last week about the attorney general-designate's positions on gun control, Roe v. Wade and the nomination of Ronnie White to a federal judgeship. But they wouldn't know anything about his testimony on gay issues if they were relying on the news stories in these outlets for their information.
It's not because Ashcroft wasn't interrogated on the subject -- but you would have had to scour the editorial pages rather than the news columns to find that out. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California both quizzed him extensively about the nomination of gay philanthropist James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, an appointment supported by Republican former secretary of state George Shultz and every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, except for Ashcroft and Jesse Helms.
Leahy revealed that Ashcroft had not only opposed Hormel but also refused to meet with him before he boycotted his confirmation hearing. Ashcroft denied that he tried to torpedo Hormel because he was gay, although Feinstein remembered that he had said at the time of the nomination that he opposed Hormel "because he engaged in a gay lifestyle." Last week, Ashcroft refused to give any reason for his opposition, except to say that it was based on "the totality" of Hormel's record.
Ashcroft insisted that he never had and never would discriminate in his hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. But when Chuck Schumer of New York asked him why was he one of a minority of senators who refused to sign a pledge of non-discrimination requested by the Human Rights Campaign, all the nominee could manage was, "I don't have any recollection about this statement, and frankly, I'd have to answer 'I don't know,' or invent an answer." He also refused to promise to continue the policy instituted by Janet Reno that specifies that sexual orientation will not be a factor in the granting of security clearances by the FBI. After checking with an aide sitting nearby, Ashcroft said he would have to evaluate that policy after "conferring with the officials in the bureau."
It's no mystery why none of this testimony made it into most newspapers, much less the (non-cable) evening news broadcasts on television. Despite the huge gains of the gay rights movement during the past 30 years, gay issues remain marginal issues in America. Unless there's a crisis, like Matthew Shepard's brutal murder, or the brouhaha over Bill Clinton's perfectly sensible proposal to allow lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military, the press routinely ignores the subject.
George Bush's arrival in the White House represents a sea change for gay Americans, but you wouldn't know it from reading the national press or watching any of the Sunday morning chat shows. Practically unmentioned in all the recent look-backs at the departed administration is the fact that one of Bill Clinton's largest legacies will surely be his legitimization of the role of gay people in American politics. He appointed more than 150 openly gay federal officials, including assistants to the president and an assistant attorney general, signed executive orders banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and appointed the first gay liaison in the White House.
Bush, on the other hand, opposed the repeal of the sodomy law in Texas. He pretended during the presidential debates that he had never even heard of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- even though it had been discussed with him at his only meeting with gay Republicans earlier in the campaign. The act would ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and it failed 50 to 49 when the Senate voted on it in 1996. It was during the debate on that bill that Ashcroft declared that schools should be allowed to ban lesbian and gay employees -- another stand you wouldn't have learned by reading any of last week's news stories, even though it puts Ashcroft well to the right of Ronald Reagan, circa 1978. That year Reagan opposed a ballot initiative in California that would have banned gay teachers in public schools. "Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like measles," the future president said.
Despite the entreaties of the Log Cabin Republicans during the campaign, Bush refused to promise to retain Clinton's executive orders banning discrimination on this basis. Needless to say, it is a priority of Gary Bauer and his allies on the religious right to get those executive orders rescinded. It will be interesting to see just how compassionate the new president turns out to be on this subject -- and whether the press ever gets around to writing about it.
Charles Kaiser is a columnist for the Advocate.
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