4.1 The "Mary Cheney" Question Redux (Daily Kos version)

Before I brought Vox Libertas here to The Daily Kos, I posted an entry commending The Daily Show for its willingness to address the appropriateness of Wolfe Blitzer's asking Dick Cheney about James Dobson's criticism of Mary Cheney's having a baby in the context of a committed lesbian relationship. My posting also criticized the mainstream media for an unwillingness to deal with these issues, which I see as vital.

Since then, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts jr. has written a couple of thoughtful columns on the topic. As a result of that and discussions and arguments with fellow bloggers and my own mother, it seems worthwhile for me to revisit my original article and expand upon it here.

Vox Libertas's diary :: ::

One of the things that led to the creation of this blog was my conviction that new media and social networking could be a powerful tool for defending democracy and liberty in the modern age. In part, I came to this conviction because of the roll of Enlightenment Era "new media and social networking" in the creation of this country and in part it was due to... The Daily Show.

At the time, news had just broken that a study had shown that The Daily Show had just as much substantive content as the network evening news. Combined with studies that showed that about as many 18-29 year-olds got their news from it as from the network news and that Daily Show viewers tended to skepticism about government and the news media, but confidence in their own political understanding, it gave a picture of a generation whose politics were substantially influenced by a fake news show on a comedy channel.

While many in my generation view that notion with considerable trepidation, I took it as essentially good news. The combination of faith in themselves and skepticism of those in power could result in voters who are more concerned with liberty, civil rights and such. The down side is that the skepticism could discourage them from voting, but that's a problem that can be worked, and in future posts I will address some of the ways that I see of doing this.

The Daily Show also provides another valuable service. It puts the mainstream press into a sharp and critical light. Probably the best known example of this is the president of CNN, Jonathan Klein's citing of Jon Stewart as one of the causes for the cancellation of Crossfire, a show that Stewart appeared on, accusing them of being bad for America, and that as a news show, he at least, had higher expectations of them than they did, expectations they failed to live up to.

Another example came up this week. Last week Wolfe Blitzer on his show The Situation Room had tried to question Vice President Dick Cheney on the negative statements made by his supporters regarding his lesbian daughter's pregnancy. The VP objected strenuously to the question even being asked. This week, Stewart did a long segment on whether the question was legitimate.

Chrissy Gephardt on The Daily ShowThe first part was a typical Daily Show satire, but the second half was an interview with Chrissy Gephardt, the openly gay daughter of Dick Gephardt who claimed it was a perfectly legitimate question. The way he conducted the interview was interesting and relevant. (If you haven't seen it, take the time to watch it at Comedy Central or iFilm.) Jon never actually mentioned that Chrissy was gay. Instead, he said that like Mary she is a political activist and the daughter of a national political figure, and interviewed her on how hard it is being the daughter of a politician, whether he chose to be a politician or was born that way, and whether politicians should have children. He then asked her if Wolfe's question was fair, and when she replied that it was, he framed the question of the hypocrisy of not defending people who are like your daughter in terms of the "hypothetical" case of segregationist Strom Thurmond having a black daughter.

Turning the religious right's question of whether gays and lesbians should have children and the claim that the lives of such children are unfairly difficult around is both good humor, and as satire makes the point that who we are and the decisions we make can make life hard for our children, but that what is important is how we treat them, how we treat others, and whether we are honest and consistent in our beliefs and actions. It also kept the piece being about the issues rather than on who Mary and Chrissy are.

This segment stands out because:

  1. Jon asked a question that the mainstream media should have, but didn't.
  2. Chrissy was articulate, funny and made the point excellently.
  3. He assumed that the viewer knew that Chrissy was a lesbian and that Thurmond actually had a mixed-race daughter. It treated the audience as knowledgeable and intelligent.

What we have here is a "fake news" comedy show that treats its viewers and guests with respect and asks questions that mainstream journalism ought to be asking, but too often aren't. On the one hand, the good news is that someone is asking the questions and someone is getting through to young people. But that leaves us with the question of why it is up to a comedy show to examine the appropriateness of Wolfe's question? Many news media reported that Cheney rebuffed Blitzer's question as "out of line", and video media showed Wolfe's chagrin and awkward backpedaling, which carried the obvious implication that he recognized his guilt. But few brought up the issue of whether the question was actually out of line, or whether the criticisms, by people who helped get Cheney elected, of his daughter weren't even more out of line, or needing response.

A couple of days later Mary Cheney also criticized Blitzter's question and the media carried that, usually highlighting her statement that her baby "is a blessing from God. It is not a political statement. It is not a prop to be used in a debate by people on either side of an issue". Interestingly, that phrasing appeared within hours of Cheney's appearance on The Situation Room in a discussion of the show on an internet gossip site (emphasis is mine):

15. Cheney is obviously ashamed of his daughter, despite what he proclaims or he wouldn't have such a hissy-fit when asked a question like this. Cheney's in the public eye and should be accustomed to being asked this type of question repeatedly. It is an interesting news item. Here's a man who's aligned with a party that hates homosexuals, and the #2 man has a daughter that is gay. I found it rather interesting to hear it referred to on a news program some weeks back that Cheney's daughter's partner was the "wife", yet Cheney's daughter is the one pregnant. I guess in a confused relationship like this, gay women as husband's are now capable of having children; sort of like being the mom and dad rolled into one. I'm sure the kid will be loved, but it's also going to grow up really confused, which will lead to other psychological issues. Pity the child. Cheney's daughter is only concerned about herself and her partner; afterall, the kid is merely a political statement and a liefestyle choice prop.

Posted at 6:47PM on Jan 24th 2007 by TH

I suspect that it is no coincidence that when Mary spoke out a few days later she used the same wording as this comment. I suspect that it or a repetition of it reached her ears and was very hurtful, with its claim that her father is ashamed of her, that the party that both he and she campaigned for hates homosexuals, and that she is moved by selfishness rather than love.

Given that it led to such hurtful things being said, mightn't there be some truth to the claim that the question is over the line and shouldn't be asked? Doesn't she have a point that she deserves some privacy and respect? Yes. Those are valid points, and deserve consideration. But, the counterpoints that she is open about her sexuality, publicly announced the pregnancy, worked on her father's campaign, and has written a book about her life are also valid. And the issue didn't start on The Situation Room. Wolfe was only citing very negative, and probably quite hurtful claims made the Cheneys' political allies, and asking if they shouldn't be answered or rebutted. Is Wolfe more at fault for asking the father if he would care to reply to those who criticize his daughter than the ones actually criticizing her?

In the end, by the time that she has announced her pregnancy, the right has attacked her, Wolfe has brought the topic up, Cheney has rebuked him, and Mary has said that neither side should be using her baby, the issue of whether it was a legitimate question is an open issue, that you would expect the press to consider. And if it is out of line to ask the VP to address the topic, if Mary Cheney's pregnancy is nobody's business, how does that affect the whole issue of the privacy of gay and lesbian couples in general? Do they as a class deserve to be left alone, or is it just the families of the rich and powerful?

At the time that I wrote the above, the media had largely ignored most of the questions that the various situations raised. A few days later, Leonard Pitts, jr, of the Miami Herald addressed the issues head on. Back in December, Pitts had written:

I find it telling that Vice President Dick Cheney hews to the hard conservative line on virtually every social issue, except gay marriage. It is, of course, no coincidence that Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian. Which tells me his position is based not on principle but, rather, on loving his daughter. It is a fine thing to love your daughter. I would argue, however, that it is also a fine thing and in some ways, a finer thing, to love your neighbor's daughter, no matter her sexual orientation, religion, race, creed or economic status—and to want her freedom as eagerly as you want your own.

After the abortive Situation Room interview, he wrote a column in which he managed to offend both the right and the left. On the matter of the propriety of the question, he sided with Chrissy Gephardt, and disagreed with Mary Cheney writing,

She is wrong. What Mary Cheney has in her womb is both a child and a political statement. One is reminded of how a simple act like drinking from a public fountain once became a political statement because some people said other people ought not have the right to do such things.

Similarly, although women all over America are carrying babies right now, Mary Cheney and any other lesbian woman who does the same unavoidably makes a political statement. Because some people believe they ought not have the right to do such things.

He also disagreed with Vice President Cheney's claim that Blitzer was "out of line."

He, too, is wrong. The Bush administration has used gays as Southern politicians once used (and often, still do use) blacks -- as scapegoats, boogeymen, distractions. Largely because of that, Heather Poe will have no legal parental rights to ''her'' child.

Dick Cheney is that administration's No. 2 official. So there is nothing ''out of line'' in asking him about any of this.

At the same time, perhaps surprisingly, he agreed with at least part of James Dobson's criticism of Mary and Heather's decision to have a baby specifically because he does see the baby as a statement, a tacit statement that fathers don't matter.

When this agreement resulted in Pitt being accused of being an anti-gay bigot, he wrote a second column explicating his position. The author of Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood, Pitt's major concern is what he sees a diminution of fatherhood and the disintegration of the family, especially the black family:

But as 16 percent of white kids and a whopping 51 percent of black ones grow up father-free, facing all the difficulties that portends, I definitely have something against the idea, whether advanced by straight women or lesbians, that father is unnecessary, that so long as there's some uncle around to show a boy how to hit the mark in the toilet, everything is hunky dory.

Like Dobson, he cites

a growing body of research ... which tells us the child raised without his or her biological father is significantly more likely to live in poverty, do poorly in school, drop out altogether, become a teen parent, exhibit behavioral problems, smoke, drink, use drugs, or wind up in jail.

In her own response to the Situation Room interview, Mary specifically addressed these claims, saying:

"Every piece of remotely responsible research that has been done in the last 20 years on this issue has shown there is no difference between children who are raised by same-sex parents and children who are raised by opposite-sex parents. What matters is that children are being raised in a stable, loving environment."

As it turns out, both sides have a certain point. Dobson and Pitts are correct. Children from "broken homes" and the children of poor unwed mothers are at a great disadvantage, but what they are failing to recognize is that the world is far more complex than the simple black and white of their world view. That single mothers are often poor, unable to spend as much time as they would like or ought with their children and the trauma of divorce, death and desertion are all factors. At least as importantly, the world isn't divided into 2-parent+kids households and broken homes, and neither of those is the historical norm.

Most of humanity has lived in multi-generational extended families. One could with some justice argue that grandparentless households were just the first step on the path to the fatherless households. Beyond that, while the human lifespan has been three score and ten--seventy years--since Biblical times, many people died before reaching that age, and so these extended families were often missing some members, mothers, fathers, one or more grandparents or had substitutions, stepparents, aunts and uncles and such. Even when everyone was alive, often family members had to be away from the family for extended periods. As a descendant of generations of sea captains, I am well aware of this.

Families have always come in a wide number of shapes and sizes. Focusing on the 1950s Leave It To Beaver husband, wife, two or three kids and a dog model as the only healthy configuration is historically, sociologically and psychologically unjustified. As I said, Dobson and Pitt are correct, a healthy, rich family life is important to children. They are wrong in their narrow view of the limits of that life. And what we need as a society is an examination, an honest evaluation of what we can do to insure that as many families are as healthy as they can be.

And it is very very far from certain that denying Mary and Heather the right to build the best family that they can will help. It is almost certain that criticizing them in Time magazine, and condemning their family as unhealthy will not make life any easier for their child. It is unlikely that failing to defend your daughter's family when they are publicly condemned will help, or that the families of millions of other gays and lesbians will be helped by public figures failing to stand up for theirs.

This country desperately needs an actual public discussion of values and issues, not an exchange of hateful barbs and name calling, but a give and take wherein people actually listen and strive to learn. Wolfe appears to have tried to engage in such a discussion if rather crudely and half-heartedly. John Stewart and Chrissy Gephardt actually did a credible first step. Leonard Pitts wrote thoughtfully, and shows signs of being the sort of person who can listen.

One columnist and a comedy show is still a pretty weak showing though. As John Edwards is fond of saying, We're a better country than that. Or we can be.