At the Bloomberg-sponsored after-party for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006, my boyfriend and I were kind of in awe. From literally every corner of the room bounced the glances and murmurs of celebrities and Washington insiders. That night, the Macedonian embassy was converted into a nexus of power, intrigue, and — let’s face it — drunkenness. As a result, you could sense it: Some people were going to get lucky that night. I remember receiving a few hopeful glances from guys as we moved about — but there was one man who kept trying to catch our eye. He was of medium height, with brown hair and a big jaw, and his looks were persistent. When I realized who it was, I turned cold, and grabbed my date. “You know who that is, right?” I asked. “That’s Ken Mehlman.”
“That’s him?” my date asked. “The RNC chair?”
It was. Peering at us from across the room was none other than Bush’s wingman, the deputy high priest of right-wing methodology (second only to Karl Rove, its pope).
“I’m going to go talk to him,” I told my date. He sighed.
The reason I wanted to talk to him was because I had a bone to pick. I’d read the reports on blogs like Mike Rogers’s BlogActive that indicated that Mehlman was gay. At the time I was working at the Daily News’ gossip column, and I’d called the Bush White House to get a comment on the rumors. Now, when you work at a gossip column, even at a big paper like the News, you don’t always get a call back from the White House. A terse e-mail, maybe, if you’re lucky.
But this time, I got a personal call from a deputy press secretary, a fratty-sounding guy who lectured me for at least ten minutes about how Mehlman was not gay, and how I was persecuting him by pursuing this story line. “He’s a regular guy,” the press secretary said. “I don’t know why you have to harass him like this.” I’ll never forget that: “He’s a regular guy.”
At the party, I walked right up to Mehlman, who waved his bottled beer and gave me a big smile as I approached. The smile faded quickly after I introduced myself. I told him what happened when I’d called the White House, and how they’d responded. “They spoke to me as if I’d accused you of doing something terrible by being gay,” I said. “That offended me.”
“I never told them to respond like that,” he told me, which is to his credit if it is true. “I apologize that they did that.”
“So are you gay?” I asked.
This is a terrible joke, and not because he was lying to my face. It was a terrible joke because through his direct actions as Bush campaign chair in the years leading up to the 2004 midterm elections and the ones after, when he served as RNC chair, gay people across America were prevented from entering into legal relationships with the people they love. And he was wisecracking about his dating life? Gay couples had to face additional scrutiny and mistrust from their neighbors because of his team. The advancement of their rights, simply put, was stalled. Mike Rogers put it well in a blog post he wrote yesterday, after Mehlman came out in an Atlantic article:
The three people most responsible for the anti-gay actions of the Bush reelection campaign are Mehlman, Karl Rove and Bush.
Do you remember that? When that trio turned gay marriage and so-called “judicial activism” into hot-button bogeymen to make sure their political base turned out at the polls and, not coincidentally, helped them defeat John Kerry?
“It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life,” Mehlman told the Atlantic. He now works for a private-equity firm here in the city, and lives in Chelsea, natch. “Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I’ve told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they’ve been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that’s made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”
Um, us too. Mehlman told Ambinder that he knew Karl Rove had been pushing for anti-gay initiatives and referendums on ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans, and it was under Mehlman’s RNC leadership that the party’s platform included threatening language about gay marriage: “Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country.” Not only did he say nothing, he actively advanced that agenda.
Now Mehlman has joined the cause of gay rights, and has been working quietly to support the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group backing the overturn of California’s Proposition 8 in court. He’s been raising money and lining up Republicans to the cause. Chad Griffin, the head of AFER, has even said that “when we achieve equal equality, he will be one of the people to thank for it.” I can’t help but question that statement in the larger sense. What if Mehlman had taken a stand against the Rovian policies of the GOP in 2004 and 2006? What if gays hadn’t been turned into the enemy? Would Proposition 8 have even passed in the first place? Would 30 states now have constitutional amendments barring members of the same sex from marrying? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. Remember this chart?
“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman told Ambinder. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” He says of skeptics: “If they can’t offer support, at least offer understanding.”
I, for one, understand that it’s hard to come out, and I’m happy for Mehlman that he can now live the life he was meant to lead. And of course I understand the impulse, at times, to hide one’s sexuality. Most LGBT people have done it. But this is all a story of too little, way too late. Mehlman was once an incredibly powerful force in national politics. Six years ago, he could have made a real difference by coming out, or at least standing up for gay people. Now he’s just another well-connected Beltway alum that most people wouldn’t recognize on the street.
Mehlman’s actions now don’t constitute a brave, noble deed. They are penance, plain and simple.