An About Face for Bush? Opinion on Appointing Gays Remains Murky

Lisa Keen, The Washington Blade

October 15, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Republican presidential frontrunner George W. Bush has reportedly changed his mind. After telling the New York Times in April that he would be willing to appoint an openly Gay person to a high position in his administration, he told a group of Christian political activists this month that he would not do so – or at least not "knowingly." That's what conservative columnist Cal Thomas reported in the Oct. 6 Washington Times. That's what the Democratic National Committee is circulating. But some Gay Republicans this week suggest the Texas governor has been misunderstood.

Bush has been taking considerable flak lately for attempting to forge a more "compassionate" image for the Republican Party, even to the point of seeming to try to nudge ultra-conservative Robert Bork into a quiet corner by rejecting Bork's contention that America is "slouching toward Gomorrah." On Oct. 6, the day after Bush rejected that notion, the Washington Times published a column by conservative Cal Thomas who said Bush told a group of 15 "Christian Republicans" that "he would not 'knowingly' appoint a practicing homosexual as an ambassador or department head" if elected president.

The Thomas column reported that Bush also told this group – 15 conservative politicos who have dubbed themselves the Madison Project – that "neither would he dismiss anyone who was discovered to be a homosexual after being named to a position."

Thomas indicated that he learned about Bush's comments from Madison Project member and anti-gay former U.S. Senator William Armstrong.

Gay Republicans are reacting cautiously in weighing remarks that were reported third-hand in the Washington Times against those that were quoted directly by the New York Times.

Carl Schmid, a staunch gay Republican who serves on the Human Rights Campaign board, said he called "sources" in the Bush campaign and "heard the [Thomas] story is inaccurate."

Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay group, said he, too, wants to confirm the remarks.

"We have to consider that the religious right is trying to keep people on board for Bush," said Tafel, "so I'm asking the Bush campaign to verify the comments. It certainly contradicts what he said on the record for the New York Times. But if he said something to that effect, it would be very, very bad. I just don't want to jump on it until we get a clear response from the campaign."

If the remarks are accurate, said Tafel, they would be "troubling" in at least two ways. First, he said, they would contradict what Tafel sees as "the most basic level of Republican principles – that we judge people on their merit. And, in contridicting what he said in the New York Times, it would be troubling in the same way Bill Clinton has been troubling – he says different things to different audiences, and it's troubling not really being sure what his core principles are."

Tafel said he's had calls from gay Republicans in town who were hoping to work in the Bush campaign who are concerned about the remarks.

"They're like, 'Oh my god, I want to work on that campaign and I could be judged by that standard,'" said Tafel. "I don't think anyone's jumping ship at this point, but in Log Cabin, people are very upset by that comment and want a clear answer."

Asked to clarify whether the remarks attributed to Bush were accurate, Mindy Tucker, press secretary for the Bush campaign, said yesterday that the Blade call was the first call she had gotten asking about the remarks. But she added:"The governor's position is that it's a question he does not ask. He expects his employees to share his conservative philosophy."

Asked whether Bush would reject an employee he knew to be gay even if he didn't ask and the employee didn't tell, Tucker said, "It's never come up, and I've never asked" Bush about how he would handle that theoretical situation.

"He doesn't ask the question," reiterated Tucker.

If Thomas's report is accurate, the comment would appear to be an adjustment, if not a change of heart by Bush. In an April 9 article, the New York Times asked Bush whether an ambassador candidate should be disqualified based on sexual orientation. In response, Bush said, "As a general statement, if someone can do a job, and a job that he's qualified for, that person, that person ought to be allowed to do his job."

Asked if he would exclude gays from "other posts," Bush told the New York Times that he would not exclude gays from other posts "as long as they can do a good job, as long as their political agenda was the same as mine."

While Schmid said he is not yet convinced the Washington Times report is accurate, he added that he also believes Bush "needs to go on record" more clearly about where he stands.

"The campaign needs to go on record with some things," said Schmid, who said he's already contributed to the Bush campaign and plans to volunteer, "and I hope it's not true."

Quite a few gay Republicans are probably hoping it's not true, too. A straw poll last month of close to 300 people attending a national meeting of Log Cabin Republicans showed that 37 percent supported Bush, putting him in second place behind U.S. Sen John McCain (with 58 percent) and ahead of Elizabeth Dole (with 5 percent).

Thus far, Bush's record has been mostly counter to positions supported by gay civil rights groups. He has said he would veto any attempt to repeal the Texas sodomy law, said he is "opposed to gay adoption," opposes including sexual orientation protection in hate crimes legislation, and disagrees with the New Jersey Supreme Court decision that said the Boy Scouts must admit gays. On the gay-positive side, he has welcomed support from gay Republicans, criticized Texas GOP leaders in 1998 for unleashing harshly worded attacks against Log Cabin members at the state party convention, has said his campaign staff plans to meet with Log Cabin, and indicated he will accept contributions from gay supporters.