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Let’s Not Go to the Tape

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I’ve been more than a little surprised by the number of people who have asked whether I’ve felt a measure of relief since The New York Times reported on February 20 that George W. Bush, while Texas governor in 1998, confided in a friend and informal advisor who is also a Christian conservative that he had no desire to “kick the gays” in his drive for national power.

The theory that’s been suggested to me and widely discussed in the media is that Bush made his comments in what he believed was a confidential setting (though in fact he was being tape-recorded), a fact which demonstrates a good measure of sincerity, especially since the man at the other end of the phone, Doug Wead, had left the employ of the first Pres. Bush after a disagreement that centered on his view that the current president’s father was a bit squishy on the gay issue. If George W. Bush was willing to express a certain softness toward gays himself to such a friend, there must be decency on basic matters of basic fairness for gay and lesbian Americans at his core, so runs the argument.

I can only ascribe this perspective to the persistent pattern in the media and among Americans generally of rewarding this president for surmounting very low hurdles, indeed—or to borrow his own words, as another example of the bigotry of low expectations. How else can one explain the notion that after four years of the Bush administration, the queer community might take comfort in learning that seven years ago—before he took command of the Republican agenda in the U.S. Congress, of appointments to the federal judiciary and of the nation’s efforts at HIV prevention, to mention only a few of his most glaring failures—George W. Bush articulated his generosity of spirit by disavowing the desire to “kick” us.

Never mind that the tape in other places made clear that the future president had all the garden variety prejudices of anyone steadfastly opposed to our community’s agenda. Why didn’t he want to kick us? “Because I’m a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?”

Bush also repeated, even in the confidentiality of a private call, a well-trod canard that he surely must have known was not true, namely that the gay community’s agenda involves the pursuit of “special rights.”

And finally, he articulated a position that his longtime political guru, Karl Rove, would later help craft into a wedge for kicking us softly—his opposition to same-sex marriage.

As was made clear in Stefen Styrksy’s reporting last week, regarding efforts at marginalizing gays throughout this administra­tion—from the assault on PBS by the education department to the discomfort at health and human services over gay-specific language in HIV and suicide prevention to the anti-gay push in the Office of Special Counsel—this is no time to relax our vigilance toward George W. Bush.

It might be tempting to assume that because he no longer has to appease the religious right to win re-election, the president will drift toward centrism. But that lesson cannot reasonably be drawn from his record, it does not square with the spate of anti-gay outbursts since the inauguration and it is not paralleled in other policy areas of the second term, most notably foreign affairs and social security.

The president has often told Americans that he wanted us to know his heart, and the Wead revelations might be taken by some to be evidence on that score.

This president, like all others, however, should be judged by his actions.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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