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Margaret Carlson: Politics before love in Cheneys’ modern family

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go? Not the Cheneys. Not this Thanksgiving. Not when U.S. Senate candidate Liz Cheney is using her gay sister, Mary, to right her sinking campaign in Wyoming.

The family feud broke into the open again Sunday on Fox News when Liz reiterated her view that Mary shouldn’t be married. Dad, meanwhile, has been out front on the issue. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has embraced Mary and her marriage to the point where he said government shouldn’t be in the bedroom and that he believes in legalizing same-sex marriage (though the details should be left to the states).

Liz (and, friends say, her mom, Lynne) is forgoing support in favor of mere forgiveness. They don’t want to isolate or hurt Mary, but politics comes first. It will be easier to repair a family breach than it will be to survive an electoral loss. There’s no place for feelings.

No wonder then that the two sisters communicate their most private feelings on Facebook. On Fox News, Chris Wallace asked Liz about a posting by Mary in which she said, “I love my sister but she is dead wrong on the issue of marriage.” Given a chance to heal the wound, Liz poured love that felt like salt on it: “I love Mary very much. I love her family very much. This is just an issue in which we disagree.”

Not that Liz wouldn’t throw Mary a few crumbs. She’s all for gay partners receiving “health benefits or be designated as a beneficiary on their life insurance.” And she partied at Mary’s wedding reception. But that’s private. Publicly, Mary’s marriage is just not of the same caliber as Liz’s. She wishes her sister all the best, as long as that doesn’t include what she has with her husband and children.

It was back to Facebook for Mary and spouse Heather Poe, who let it be known how “offensive” she found Liz, her sister-in-law in 15 states and the District of Columbia, at least. “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.” Mary added: “You’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history.” This followed an earlier exchange in which she wished for her family the “same rights, privileges and protections” accorded to Liz’s.

Under any circumstances, it would have been awful for Mary and Heather, who have two children, to watch Liz refuse to stand up for them. It may make matters worse that Liz was shunning them over a primary election she is almost certain to lose. A recent poll has Cheney down more than 50 points. The internal poll by the campaign of the man whose seat she covets, Sen. Mike Enzi, could be off. But it couldn’t be so far off that Liz has any chance of winning.

Liz is following a standard Republican playbook, evolving from “I hate homosexuals,” dropped for political survival, to “I can tolerate them so long as they don’t think they’re equal to me.”

What Republicans don’t realize is that the “love, but” construction is increasingly unnecessary. Survey after survey shows young people make no distinction between gay and straight marriage. Older folks have gradually changed as family members come out, and you can’t turn on the TV without seeing a gay family that looks a lot like your own. In polite society, you can’t treat gays badly anymore.

There was a time the whole family hid Mary’s homosexuality, including Mary herself, who supported anti-gay candidates. But then dear old Dad came around, Mary got married, and Liz decided to decamp for a Senate race in Wyoming. At that point, you’d think they would have gone on a cozy family hunting vacation, minus the bird shot to the face, and worked out the ground rules on how to deal with Mary’s marriage in person rather than via dueling Facebook posts.

On Monday, Mary lost Dad when he backtracked and explained that all that stuff about shared holidays and visits was just Liz being nice. “Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter and Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position,” he said.

The worst conclusion is that Liz was cynically calculating that this was her big chance to show live, and in living color, that despite what residents of the Cowboy State had heard, and she possibly felt, she hasn’t gone soft on gay marriage.

This could be as wrong politically as it is personally. In all states, including conservative ones, people might reward putting love of a sibling above lust for political power. Liz could have had a Sister Souljah moment with her own sister. She still might lose, but would do so with her family intact.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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