Topic: Government & Politics

The Mary Cheney Controversy

In a close presidential election that is going to be substantially decided (and this is said with much sadness) by whichever candidate’s misrepresentation, exaggeration, deceit or outright lie is most effective in persuading voters, a new and unexpected ethical issue has seized center stage. During the final presidential debate, Senator John Kerry chose to use Vice-President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary as an example of a gay American. The Cheneys and the Bush camp vociferously objected to this as a “below the belt” tactic, and polls show that approximately two thirds of the public agrees. Amazingly, this off-the-cuff remark is emerging as a real factor as the campaign winds down to its final weeks, and some political observers believe that the negative reaction to it has turned a race that was considered a dead heat a week ago into a narrow lead for President Bush.

If true, Kerry has been found guilty of ethical misconduct by the jury of public opinion. Is it a fair verdict?

The argument that Kerry’s comment was wrong is based on a long-standing public feeling and an unwritten law among politicians that a candidate’s family members are non-combatants and thus shouldn’t be mentioned, used, or attacked by rival candidates. This is true even when the family members are actively campaigning, like Kerry’s daughters and Al Gore’s daughters, unless the family members themselves are political pros. Lynn Cheney and Hillary Clinton are in the latter category. Kerry, the critics say, crossed the line: he seized on an opportunity to suggest hypocrisy in the Bush administration by referencing Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation, using her, in essence, as a prop to attack her father, the President and the GOP without her permission.

Kerry’s exact words, in response to a question about whether homosexuality was a personal choice or a genetically determined trait, were these:

“If you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.”

Fox News commentator William Kristol pronounced Kerry’s use of Ms. Cheney’s sexual preference as “creepy.” He and others noted that she is supporting her father, the Vice-President, and that Kerry has neither the standing nor her permission to declare how she feels about the origins of homosexuality. An ordinary citizen whose only connection to the election is the identity of her father, Mary Cheney’s personal life has been broadcast to millions because John Kerry thought he could score some debate points. “You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected,” Dick Cheney told a rally in Fort Myers, Fla.

This, perhaps, is the real reason the comment has caused such a stir. The image of Kerry as an opportunist whose positions and tactics are constantly being adjusted to accomplish the goal of achieving the Presidency is a main theme of the Bush campaign. The nuances of Kerry’s comments on foreign policy and job creation may be too complex for some potential voters, but everyone senses that there is something untoward in dragging an opposing candidate’s daughter into the political crossfire. Kerry’s campaign manager didn’t help things when she said that Mary Cheney was “fair game.” What has she done to make her “fair game,’ other than to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian? The comment cemented the feeling that Cheney’s daughter’s privacy doesn’t matter to the Kerry campaign because she dares to support her father, the Democrat’s equivalent of The Prince of Darkness. Indeed, some gay advocacy publications have actually taken that position, which embodies the unethical principle that it is proper to mistreat those who disagree with you. Shame on them.

According to press accounts, some of Kerry’s aides urged him to apologize for his comment. They were wise. An apology would be appropriate, and would relegate the incident to reasonable status: a matter of poor judgement in the heat of a debate. But Kerry has refused, apparently using the rationalization that the Bush campaign has used unsavory campaign tactics and deserves some of its own medicine. If this really was Kerry’s response, then it shows ethical myopia. Mary Cheney isn’t “the Bush campaign.” She’s the one that deserves the apology. Hurting a family member to retaliate for hardball politics? For most Americans, this fails the gut test. It feels wrong, because it is.

As a mistake, Kerry’s statement is both minor and forgivable. As a tactic that he and some of his advisors claim is legitimate, it is indeed “creepy.” Nor does the fact that Vice-President Cheney has spoken in public about his daughter give Kerry license to use her for his own purposes. He’s not her father.

In the broad sweep of events, it seems strange that a chance remark of this sort may determine the results of an election that involves major choices on the best way to handle world terrorism, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, employment, health care, immigration and the global economy. But character does matter in choosing a leader, and ethical conduct in small matters may signal large deficiencies. Candidate Kerry could have defused this matter by acknowledging his mistake. Not doing so may be read as a statement of his priorities and values, and if voters do not like what that statement signifies, he has only himself to blame.

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