Strange Bedfellows

The New York Times’ Frank Rich isn’t the country’s worst columnist–that distinction belongs to Paul Krugman–but he may be the weirdest. Rich is a former drama critic who, for reasons no one remembers, was given a political column by the Times some years ago. I’m sure Rich has many interests, but the only one I’ve ever seen mentioned in his columns is homosexuality.
Today’s is a classic: “Just How Gay is the Right?”. Rich describes homosexuality as “the ticking time bomb within the conservative movement that no one can defuse,” apparently because he thinks many conservatives are gay. But that isn’t the point of his column. What he really wants to talk about is Advise and Consent, the great 1959 novel by Allen Drury which we wrote about here and here. Rich recalls the most memorable event in that novel, the attempted blackmailing of Senator Brigham Anderson of Utah:

In “Advise and Consent,” the handsome young senator with a gay secret…is from Utah – a striking antecedent of the closeted conservative Mormon lawyer in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” For a public official to be identified as gay in the Washington of the 50’s and 60’s meant not only career suicide but also potentially actual suicide. Yet Drury, a staunchly anti-Communist conservative of his time, regarded the character as sympathetic, not a villain. The senator’s gay affair, he wrote, was “purely personal and harmed no one else.” As the historian David K. Johnson observes in “The Lavender Scare,” his 2004 account of Washington’s anti-gay witch hunts during the cold war era, it’s the gay-baiters in Drury’s novel who “are the unprincipled menace to the country, using every available tool for partisan advantage.”

Throughout his long column, Rich associates Allen Drury’s point of view with his own, and he suggests that Drury–a fan of the “the constitutional checks and balances that ‘Advise and Consent’ so powerfully extols”–would have been on the Democrats’ side in the current battle over the filibuster.
This perspective is so strange that it requires a moment to untangle. First, for those unfamiliar with Drury’s novel, its villains are liberals, and its heroes conservatives. At the height of the cold war, the President, a supreme politician in declining health, nominates as Secretary of State an an appeaser named Robert Leffingwell. A bipartisan coalition favoring a strong defense against Soviet expansionism forms against Leffingwell in the Senate, and ultimately defeats his nomination. Along the way, the liberals learn that Brig Anderson, a rising star in what is clearly the Republican Party, had a brief homosexual experience while in the Army during World War II. The liberals use this fact to blackmail Anderson, trying to force him to vote for Leffingwell. Anderson commits suicide instead, and his death galvanizes the conservatives’ opposition to the far-left nominee and his unprincipled liberal allies.
So Advise and Consent really does continue to resonate, but not in the way that Rich suggests. There is no “gay-baiting” in the book. There is, rather, “outing.” The liberals threaten to out Senator Anderson, by then married and a father, as a method of blackmail. Today, as in Drury’s book, only liberals out their enemies.
This is particularly relevant, perhaps, to Frank Rich, because Rich himself is a famous “outer.” It was Rich who outed David Brock, a formerly conservative journalist. Brock didn’t kill himself, thankfully, but he couldn’t take the heat, and became a strident left-winger, which pretty much ended his career. So the liberals in Advise and Consent tried, unsuccessfully, to do what Rich did successfully–turn a conservative to their side by threatening to expose his homosexuality. This is a screamingly obvious parallel which Rich mysteriously fails to acknowledge.
Rich concludes by suggesting that Advise and Consent supports the Democrats’ filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees. He writes, apparently with the appalling Kleagle Byrd in mind:

[W]e now have a wider war on gay people, thinly disguised as a debate over the filibuster, cloaked in religion…. Check out the good old days in “Advise and Consent,” not to mention Charles Laughton’s valedictory performance as a Bible Belt senator who ultimately puts patriotism over partisanship, and weep.

Once again, Advise and Consent is an odd place for Rich to seek support for today’s Democrats. The conservatives (patriots, really) who are the heroes of Drury’s book didn’t filibuster Leffingwell’s nomination. They defeated it, by a vote of 74 to 24.


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