Bush’s Sheldon Game

BY Hans Johnson

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Lou Sheldon calls gay people “dark forces” bent on destroying “faith and families.”

He backed quarantining people with AIDS and tried to quash the law shielding the disabled from bias. The national organization he heads, Traditional Values Coalition, gave money to Operation Rescue, a violent anti-abortion group. In the wake of 9/11, he joined the chorus to deny gays relief funds, even vowing to slam tight the gates of toleration and “get the foot out of the door.”

Sheldon, from his lair in Orange County, California, is a strong candidate for a face card in Bush’s deck of un-American extremists. Instead, the president tapped him for faith-based adviser and gave him red-carpet treatment at the White House. Wooing Sheldon is just one twist in Bush’s romance with the far-right fringe.

Sheldon’s latest foray onto the supposedly sacred turf of local governance and personal liberty is his mission to Massachusetts. On November 18, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court gave the legislature until May to extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples. Two weeks later, Sheldon packed his carpetbag in Anaheim and pounced. Anxiety about gays is Sheldon’s gravy train, and the Massachusetts ruling is his chance to ride it round the state and coast to coast.

Like Bush, whose snarling State of the Union address endorsed the drive to limit marriage through a constitutional amendment, Sheldon smelled a chance to broaden his base. A corps of outright homophobes vote and donate, sure. But so do a host of fearful fence-sitters, unfamiliar and uneasy with gay couples.

Sheldon, unlike Bush, bares his teeth without obliqueness. He once wrote that “gays and lesbians live perverted, twisted lives that feed upon the unsuspecting and the innocent.” His is a public face that only a right-wing president seeking his first real mandate could love.

For both, the crux remains their masquerading as conservatives. Put aside Bush’s fiscal budget busting, which a growing claque of elected GOPers and grassroots activists condemn. On social issues, even some conservatives get edgy about the feds enforcing curbs that stigmatize gay people and slam the door on protection they seek, such as visiting a sick partner in the hospital. Sheldon, a bona fide extremist, would do precisely this by writing second-class status for homosexuals into the constitutions of several states and the nation. Never mind that federal law and most state codes already bar same-sex marriage. Is Bush so eager to take the plunge for religious right votes that he will walk this plank with his bigoted beau?

Sheldon has a history of turning into a liability in the harsh light of elections. In 1994, his supposedly nonpartisan charity took $47,000 from the California GOP to churn out voter guides, only to see this shady quid pro quo blow up in the press a year later—but after Republicans won. Still unrepentant in 1998, Sheldon’s nonprofit took $50,000 from moderate U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong for “voter education efforts.” In late October, the tables turned. Hard upon news of the gay-bashing murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, revelation of the Sheldon gift on the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page rocked Fong’s toss-up race to topple Barbara Boxer. Liberals labeled Sheldon “irrational” and “mean-spirited,” and many gay Republicans defected. Boxer won a cakewalk.

Californians’ visceral reaction against Sheldon crosses the political spectrum. In 1978 Sheldon was director of a statewide drive to ban gay teachers from the public schools. The measure, fueled by Anita Bryant’s demagoguery, awoke the fledgling gay community. Its massive outcry reflected fears that life and livelihoods were on the line. Yet the knockout blow that year against Lou Sheldon’s brand of hate came from an unlikely agent: Ronald Reagan. The former two-term governor’s denunciation in the campaign’s closing stages gave conservative voters permission to reject the measure. The referendum failed by a 4-3 margin.

Sheldon’s resurrection as a close Bush ally undercuts the president’s claim of conservatism and shows how radically the president has strayed from even Reagan’s legacy. There was Sheldon in the People’s House, applauding with a cadre of pale male policy-makers and cheek-by-jowl with Jerry “Blame-Gays-for-9/11” Falwell as Bush signed a law restricting access to late-term abortion. Bush’s coziness with domestic extremists makes a mockery of his espoused commitment after 9/11 to fight for “progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” It exposes him as a divider, not a uniter. Yet the same unholy alliance he cultivates with radicals will splinter off some voters for the Democrats and could spell his own defeat.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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