Dick Cheney, Feeling No Pain

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The
best way for a right-winger to get onto the New York Times
op-ed page has always been to take a punch at another right-winger.
It usually helps to attack from the Left, but this week, Gary
Bauer managed to sneak into Sunday's Times by criticizing
Dick Cheney from the Right. See "Fuzzy Morality" (NYT
op-ed, October 8). Bauer's beef? As he sees it, Cheney's answer
to the gay-marriage question, posed by moderator Bernard Shaw
in last week's vice-presidential debate, was an affront to social
conservatives.

Pressed
on the question of homosexual marriage by Shaw (And aren't we
all glad that Bernie didn't repeat the phrasing he used for the
racial profiling query: "Secretary Cheney, for the purposes
of this question, you are gay."), Cheney said that "people
should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want
to enter into" and "states are likely to come to different
conclusions" on whether those relationships should be officially
recognized.

For
Bauer, this amounted to left-wing mushiness, "a surrender
on the defense of traditional marriage." It's hard to see
how this is so. In fact, the way Cheney framed the answer –
beginning with "we live in a free society," and closing
with "I don't think there should necessarily be a federal
policy in this area" – might properly be invoked by
conservative constitutionalists for nearly every social policy
question. But more broadly, whatever one's position on the Defense
of Marriage Act, right-thinking folks everywhere should applaud
Cheney's handling of the gay marriage question. Cheney's answer
was a terrific one – not so much because of what he said,
but because of what he left unsaid.

As
everyone knows by now, Dick Cheney has an openly gay daughter,
Mary Cheney, who lives with another woman and has worked for Coors
as a liaison to homosexual groups. Another politician – these
days, almost any politician-would have seized the opportunity
to personalize the issue, burbled about his experience raising
a gay child, and thus "humanized" himself. Dick Cheney
held firm.

The
reasons for this admirable restraint? Undoubtedly, Cheney was
loath to offend Christian conservatives like Bauer. But there's
more to it than that. Cheney, one feels certain, rejects the modern
tendency to personalize every question of policy, and finds something
repulsive in the practice of exploiting family members for political
gain.

What
a contrast to the confessional, self-revelatory fashion in which
politics has been practiced in the Age of Clinton. Examples are
legion. There's Bill Clinton's repeated invocations of his alcoholic
stepdaddy and coke-addicted brother. There's the pathological
narcissism he displayed at a 1998 prayer-breakfast, referring
to his Monica troubles: "I have been on quite a journey these
last few weeks to get to the end of this, to the rock-bottom truth
of where I am and where we all are." (Query: what could "where"
he was possibly have to do with "where" the rest of
us were?) For a particularly egregious, now all-but-forgotten
example, there was 1994 California gubernatorial candidate Kathleen
Brown, who, in order score points in a debate with Republican
Pete Wilson, revealed to the world that her daughter had been
raped.

And,
of course, Vice-President Gore yields to no one in brazen exploitation
of private family concerns. He treats the American voting public
as an extended encounter group, all the members of which can learn
from his struggle to come to terms with sister Nancy's death,
son Albert III's near-death, wife Tipper's depression, etc., etc.
What Al Gore wouldn't give right now for a gay child (perhaps
Tipper is leaning on young Al III even now: "It's just for
a semester.")

Even
when he's not hawking old family tragedies, Al Gore's making his
private life our business in myriad other ways, as with the famous
throat-culture kiss he and Tipper shared at the Democratic Convention.
"Even Presidents have private lives" might have been
a better defense if these people actually acted like they believed
it.

Into
this political culture of gooey sentiment lumbers Dick Cheney:
a lumpy, unglamorous white guy who nibbles on his the stem of
his glasses while thinking. In the debate and on the talk shows,
his answers are crisp, logical, dispassionate, authoritative,
and unapologetic. He eschews the politics of personal revelation
and refuses to play the Clintonian role of blubbery empath. Try
to picture Cheney on Oprah: it's like trying to envision Humphrey
Bogart in drag. Not only is Cheney unable to feel your pain –
he barely feels his own. How in the world did a man so innately
imperturbable manage to have three heart attacks?

It's
hard not to fear that such manly reserve is disappearing from
public life. We live in a world where the personal and the political
are rapidly becoming indistinguishable. Today, public figures
routinely reveal things about their private lives that are not
only irrelevant, but positively cringe-inducing. In the soft-edged,
feminized political discourse of the future, no man will be elected
who's unable to weep on command or unwilling to share a videotape
of his wife giving birth. But for now, Dick Cheney stands athwart
the gushing tide of emotionalism and grumbles: "Stop. None
of your business." How refreshing. It may be a losing battle,
but it's one well worth fighting.

October
12, 2000

Gene
Healy is an attorney practicing in Northern Virginia.

Gene
Healy Archives

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