Rob Portman’s family life does not usually get much attention, and no wonder: The Republican senator from Ohio makes Mike Brady look like Ozzy Osbourne. But earlier this year, Portman published an op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch about his own personal journey down Gay Marriage Acceptance Road. Portman had once disapproved of a practice which, naturally—sorry, religious conservatives: unnaturally—violated his solemn Christian beliefs. Then the issue come home to his family. And, of course, things changed: “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives.”
Portman received a certain amount of grief for the lateness of his conversion, and for the solipsism of his article: What about issues that don’t directly touch the lives of the sainted Portman clan? In those cases, could the downtrodden or the discriminated against count on the firm support of the newly righteous senator?
On the whole, however, the criticism was limited. Liberals were happy to have a new ally. And the religious right generally didn’t put up too much of a fuss because, after all, who wants to castigate someone for something so personal?
This is preposterous: Gay marriage isn’t a personal issue. Facts like that, though, get lost in the culture of personalization that characterizes modern-day politics: "My brother is a firefighter," "my sister is a cop," "my uncle served in the military," have become stump-speech refrains, as if it were the only reason to support the fire department or the Pentagon. (Lines such as “My mother is on food stamps” tend to be heard less frequently).
And now that the GOP divisions over gay marriage are back in the news, it’s no surprise that, once again, the controversy over the issue is being driven by something “personal.” It begins in Wyoming, where a right-wing challenger to sitting GOP Senator Mike Enzi is clearly enunciating her opposition to same-sex marriage. That’s not exactly newsworthy in a party dominated by the far right. The news is that the candidate is Liz Cheney, whose sister Mary is both gay and married. (Since people like Liz Cheney no longer control all the levers of government, I can happily report that Mary is married to a woman).
Here is how Jonathan Martin of The New York Times describes what happened:
Liz Cheney appeared on [‘Fox News Sunday’] and said that she opposed same-sex marriage, describing it as "just an area where we disagree," referring to her sister. Taken aback and hurt, Mary Cheney took to her Facebook page to blast back: "Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree you're just wrong — and on the wrong side of history."
Things got even more dicey once Mary’s wife, Heather Poe, jumped in:
Poe went further, touching on Liz Cheney's relocation from Northern Virginia to Wyoming to seek office. (Liz Cheney is already battling accusations of carpetbagging in the race.) "I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other," Ms. Poe wrote on her Facebook page. "Yes, Liz," she added, "in fifteen states and the District of Columbia you are my sister-in-law."
Boom! Everything Mary Cheney and Poe say is true, but, inevitably, the political media has focused on the least interesting questions. There’s a lot of talk, for instance, about the question of hypocrisy, which Poe raised by saying Liz "has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us." The hypocrisy allegation has been flung the other way, too: "People who have spoken to Liz Cheney say she is irritated that her sister is making their dispute public and believes it is hypocritical for Mary Cheney to take such a hard line now, given that she worked for the re-election of President Bush, an opponent of same-sex marriage," Martin reports, not noting that the accusation would be rather more pertinent if Mary came out against Liz’s election, which has not yet occurred.
But, really, who cares if Liz Cheney is a hypocrite—or, for that matter, if her sister Mary is one, too? Both are in politics; it wouldn't be the first or last time that a politician had acted in such a manner.
Then there is the question of familial betrayal, which seems to be at the root of the scorn Liz Cheney is encountering. Here’s Ruben Navarette at CNN: "Besides, she should tread lightly on this subject. Why? Because blood is thicker than votes. And because Michael Corleone was right, and -- even in the rough and tumble of politics -- you 'don't ever take sides with anyone against the family.'" Here's Alan Simpson: "You're not even destroying friendships -- you're destroying family relationships just because of this race. It's hard for all of us who know the Cheneys to see the things she’s doing to win this race. It's almost like 'I will do anything to win this race,' because I cannot ever believe that there would be a breach between she and Mary."
And here’s Frank Bruni in Tuesday’s New York Times:
If Liz Cheney, whose bid for the Senate has always had a stench of extreme opportunism, wants to discuss traditions and values, I’m all for it. Let’s start here: Isn’t there a tradition of close-knit family members’ taking care not to wound one another? Is there not value in that?
Well, to answer Bruni's syrupy question, sure. There is value in not offending family members. But, compared to basic questions of right and wrong—of treating people with dignity—it’s pretty small beer. Gay marriage is not an issue that should require someone's lesbian sister to make them "see the light." Being against gay marriage is wrong, regardless of the context. Bruni, though, is unable to drop the personal-story prism:
Liz's decision to chart a course and publicize a view bound to offend her sister is entirely volitional. It's also entirely different from airing other ideological disagreements within families. Conflicting views on abortion or the death penalty don't challenge the very structure and foundation of a loved one's home. Questioning the validity of a marriage does. You're not saying that you part with the way someone thinks. You're saying that you have qualms with who they are, and this is a statement — a sentiment — you can keep to yourself. Even once Liz had elected to run, she could have chosen to say that the issue of gay marriage wasn't going to be part of her campaign.
I am not sure how far Bruni wants to push the idea that views about abortion necessarily have nothing to do with who a person is. I would imagine many honest pro-lifers think that if their family members choose to get abortions, the decision would say a lot about who they are. Moreover, I would imagine that many pro-choicers think that pro-lifers say a lot about themselves when they try to prohibit people from getting abortions. And given the current state of our criminal justice system, it certainly says a lot about someone if they favor the death penalty.
But putting all the aside, the upshot of Bruni’s paragraph is that a giant political issue in the United States should have been ignored by someone running for the Senate because it might offend her sister. However correct Bruni is about the issue of gay marriage, this is not the way politics should operate. Liz Cheney's family, sorry to say, is less important than our elected representatives voicing their opinions on important issues.
The implication here is that if Liz Cheney continues to follow the course she is on (now with her father's backing), and continues to take an anti-gay marriage position, the real tragedy is that the Cheney family Christmas dinner will be ruined. Who cares if it is? Gay marriage, like abortion or any other issue, is not about the personal woes or the family stories of our elected officials. Being wrong on matters of rights and dignity is much worse than being a hypocrite. And for that vast majority of Americans who are not members of the Cheney family, Liz Cheney’s position on gay marriage speaks quite clearly to "who she is" in ways that have nothing to do with whether or not her sister happens to be a lesbian.
I hope Liz Cheney never sets foot in the U.S. Senate, but not because she's a bad sibling.