Rick Perry's Vamp
Here is a moral question for our times. There is this Presidential candidate who insists on outing himself as gay, but does not say so in so many words. What is the media supposed to do with that? What is the citizenry supposed to do with that?
It seems to me that Rick Perry was outing himself in his “speech” in New Hampshire on Friday, the one that has gotten all the attention on cable news stations, especially on Rachel Maddow, who must have known she was playing with fire when she said she did not have words to describe Perry’s behavior and instead reported some headlines that said Perry had been drunk. Maddow, who is herself a lesbian, should not have been so coy, playing around the edges of outing Perry. Maddow knew perfectly well the words to describe what Perry was doing. He was “vamping”: he was posturing as a gay Presidential candidate, acting out various homosexual stereotypes, whether he meant to do that or whether, under all the pressure, he was just letting himself go. He arched his eyebrows. He smirked. He made reference to the militancy of Texas and New Hampshire mottos, as if they were over the top. He overdramatized pulling his simple tax form out of his jacket. He clung to the bottle of maple syrup he was awarded as if he were a teenage girl who had won a doll at a State Fair. His voice and tone were mincing. Vamping is the proper title for what his performance was, and it is there for all to see on the Internet.
But nobody says that was what he was doing, at least not yet. In fact, the networks have not covered it and this morning’s New York Times doesn’t even cover it, content to run instead with the usual run of the mill scandal by which candidates are destroyed: Herman Cain was the object of sexual harassment charges some twenty years ago that resulted in a cash settlement of some inconsequential amount. If those charges were serious, more money would have changed hands. The networks are happy to say that Cain tripped up on his explanations or changed them, when he did not. All he did was elaborate his explanations. He is right to describe this as another high tech lynching. But the networks know where to go on heterosexual sex scandals, having handled so many of them in the past twenty years, and so they will run snippets of his responses as if he were contradicting himself or equivocating.
The Cain story does not have legs unless one of the women come forward or other cases get reported, however much it will continue to be reported as a high point or low point or memorable point in the Cain campaign. Conservative pundits say that this attack is taking place because the liberal media couldn’t touch his 9-9-9 plan. Au contraire, mon ami. The plan has been knocked down, Cain is about to go down in the polls, and it is a sad commentary on our times that he cannot be let go without besmirching his character. Who does the press think he is anyway: Newt Gingrich?
The Perry story is different. The press doesn’t know how to deal with it. They hope it will go away. But is this vamping episode enough to allow them to trot out the rumors about Perry’s homosexuality that have surfaced on the web? I don’t know. The press is always looking for a precedent, and none come easily to mind. But the press doesn’t need much to take the leap into disclosure, and the Friday speech may be enough. Gary Hart telling the Miami Herald that the paper was free to follow him around was treated as a release from the previously operative rules of confidentiality rather than as a declaration of innocence and so the press discovered Donna Rice. It was the press which built George Romney’s “I’ve been brainwashed” into a sign of the dubiousness of a Presidential candidacy when the remark was merely a poor choice of metaphors.
In those cases, the press was out to make points, to tell a back story, that the press thought needed making. For some reason, they thought Hart a hypocrite and so thought that exposing his sex life was a good thing, so long as they had an excuse to do so. The same with Romney, who the press had decided was an insufficient candidate. Perry combines both of these stories. He is a very intellectually flawed candidate who reporters would not identify that way when he announced his candidacy because it is so rude to call someone stupid. A Texas reporter on Chris Matthews’ Hardball said the public would soon enough discover what they wanted to know about whether Perry was equipped to be President. The people who knew him stood back from breaking the scoop because it was to them so obvious the public would draw the same conclusion they did. But it was a George Romney moment, and so why were they so reticent? Maybe stupidity is such a serious flaw in character that one does not acknowledge it unless pressed to. Let somebody else break the news. Have times changed so much since 1968 that while sexual peccadilloes of a heterosexual nature have become easily charged, the press sets higher boundaries for other kinds of character flaws?
Breaking the story of rumors of Perry’s homosexuality may also be a sign that the press is only willing to exploit well trod story lines of scandal. They love scandals having to do with adultery and, even better, love babies. That goes back to Alexander Hamilton and Grover Cleveland. But outing a candidate would be a final break with the liberal idea that there is a difference between private and public life. What does his being gay have to do with his being President? Let him fall on his own account because of the weight of his stupidity, which can be spelled out as weirdness rather than called by its rightful name. And that Perry had already very successfully accomplished, down in the polls at this point to single digits. Let the homosexual story stay hidden.
But should it stay hidden? One can argue that the American people have a right to know who they are voting for, even if the press does not think Perry’s sexuality is a relevant issue. Well, what is a relevant issue is for the citizenry, not the press to determine. Joe Lieberman had to manage the Jewish question; Jack Kennedy had to manage the Catholic question, and Barack Obama had to manage the African American Church question, even though religion is not a test of office but is something about which voters care about and a fact that can influence the outcome of their deliberations. Mitt Romney, this season, has to manage the Mormon question.
Why shouldn’t Perry have to manage the sex orientation question? Homosexuality is a public political issue. There have just been a fight over whether to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and there is an ongoing fight over single sex marriage, that debate moving from state to state rather than through a constitutional amendment. Don’t people have a right to know who they are voting for? The electorate can reject a candidate for irrelevant reasons. It is not up to the press to serve as the judge who decides what it is proper for the jury to see. And a few gay candidates being tossed from the arena for that reason alone can set up a time when being gay does seem a side bar to the story of a Presidential candidacy. Remember how the press asked Kitty Dukakis whether she would have a Seder in the White House? Well, Obama has one every year.
Well, the press is not very brave. They do not want to break new ground except when they want to. They did not know how to handle Hillary’s candidacy to break the single remaining glass ceiling of the Presidency. They commented on whether her blouses showed too much cleavage, and then dropped it because it seemed too silly. Now they do not know how to handle Rick Perry. I suppose this very middle class sensitivity to good manners about privacy speaks well of their personal morals; it does not speak well of their service to the nation, which is to be as brutal as necessary because the electorate should know the truth about its candidates.