Dick Cheney, Feeling No Pain

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.

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