On April 29, 1993, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a confirmation hearing for Roberta Achtenberg, President Clinton’s nominee for the position of Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Like most nominees, Miss Achtenberg brought along members of her family to lend her support during her hour-long ordeal and fondly introduced them to the committee. But, because Miss Achtenberg is an admitted lesbian, the first “family member” she introduced was “my beloved partner. Judge Mary Morgan.” She also brought her rabbi. The hearing room must have looked a bit like Maya Angelou’s Inaugural poem come to life.
Even though neither the beloved partner nor the rabbi opened her or his mouth throughout the proceeding. Miss Achtenberg’s subtle exploitation of religious authority to legitimize her open sexual perversion could not have been missed, but dragging them along turned out to be unnecessary after all. One would have thought that the appropriate reaction from the assembled senators would have been to tell Miss Achtenberg —and the President who nominated her—that the open practice of sexual abnormality inherently disqualifies a person from serving the people of the United States in a position of public trust and that it was an insult to the Congress as well as to the citizens it represents for an acknowledged lesbian even to show up at the hearing, let alone to thrust the fleshly evidence of her repellent habit before the committee’s and the public’s eyes. Yet, though four members of the committee voted against her nomination, not a one of them uttered a word of disapproval of her perversion, her immorality, or her grotesque tastelessness.
As the debate on the Achtenberg nomination developed, it soon became clear how the lines were being drawn. The committee chairman, liberal Democratic Senator Donald Riegle, Jr., of Michigan, openly praised the nominee for trampling down yet one more vineyard where the grapes of public morals are stored. “In a sense,” he spouted, “you’re crossing one of those invisible lines that we have in our society in terms of this issue that is there, raised by some with respect to sexual orientation. I think it has no part in the suitability of you to serve in this job.” Mr. Riegle’s thoughts appeared to be at one with those of his colleagues who also supported her. One of the main purposes, and perhaps the whole purpose, of the nomination was precisely to cross, if not to erase, the “line” of which Mr. Riegle spoke—to discard once and for all the notion that the sexual life and sexual orientation of a nominee are relevant to the nominee’s capacity to serve in public office.
Moreover, liberal Democrats were not the only ones to take this position. In the course of the confirmation hearings. Miss Achtenberg received some tough questions from conservative Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina about her blatant political bludgeoning of the Boy Scouts while she was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Miss Achtenberg repeatedly used her position to stop the Scouts from using public school buildings in San Francisco because they refused to hire homosexuals as Scoutmasters, and she also pressured the United Way of the Bay area to withdraw its six-figure financial donations to the Scouts for the same reason. In the course of wrestling with Mr. Faircloth’s questions. Miss Achtenberg was evasive if not actually perjurious, and similar themes were taken up by other Republican opponents during the floor debate.
But neither Mr. Faircloth nor conservative Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, the main critic of Miss Achtenberg during debate on the Senate floor, ever challenged her “crossing of the line” or the propriety of her sexual habits. Mr. Lott indeed went so far as to “re-emphasize that the issue before us today is not one of sexual preference or orientation. It is whether the nominee is qualified and temperamentally fit for the position to which he or she may be nominated.” During the whole debate, which ended with her overwhelming confirmation, only one senator—Jesse Helms—ever questioned whether the line should be crossed. “We are crossing the threshold,” Mr. Helms declared clearly, “into the first time in the history of America that a homosexual, a lesbian, has been nominated by a President of the United States for a top job in the U.S. government. That is what the issue is.”
For his pains, Mr. Helms was, of course, at once subjected to the vilification of his colleagues—hardly a new experience for him, since that is the treatment regularly administered these days to those who resist crossing cultural and moral lines, and Mr. Helms has long made a distinguished career of standing athwart lines that no one else dares defend—with Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois gurgling that “I am frightened to hear the politics of fear and divisiveness and of hatred rear its ugly head on this floor” and Senator Riegle himself proclaiming that Mr. Helms’ remarks “reflected poorly on the United States Senate.”
This, then, is the position in which the nation now stands: a senator who objects to the nomination of an open homosexual to a high public office is condemned by his colleagues as a fearmonger, a bigot, and an exponent of hatred and is told he is a disgrace to the Senate, while the pervert herself is held up as a moral paragon. That is what it means to cross the line of which Mr. Riegle and Mr. Helms spoke, since the line marks not only what is considered suitable conduct for public office but also what a fortiori is suitable in private life and personal judgments. If moral impropriety does not bar a person from holding public office, why should it color our private judgment about the person? The acceptance of Miss Achtenberg’s nomination, then, crosses more than one line, and that too was a large part of its purpose. By nominating an open homosexual for a sub-Cabinet level position, Mr. Clinton took a giant step—the biggest ever taken by any President—to declare homosexuality a normal and legitimate form of sexual conduct and to rescind the traditional moral and social sanctions against it.
Yet what emerges even more clearly than the sly normalization of perversion that the liberal left has pulled off is the total unfitness of the Republican Party to resist this moral and cultural revolution. Indeed, if one fact has become apparent about the Republican Party this year, it is that as a whole it not only does not want to bear any banners in the nation’s continuing cultural war but also does not even understand how to do so. The fighting of that war consists precisely in the ability and the willingness to discern the “lines” and “thresholds” across which new norms are smuggled and old ones abandoned, and the Republicans have shown themselves to be chronically myopic when it comes to perceiving such boundaries.
It was not, after all, the Republican right that initially resisted Mr. Clinton’s proposed lifting of the ban against homosexuals in the Armed Forces but Democrat Sam Nunn with the support of Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was not the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who refused to confirm lawbreaker Zoe Baird as Attorney General but moderate Democrats like Arizona’s Dennis DeConcini, bolstered by the spontaneous popular revulsion registered against her by thousands of phone calls to Senate offices. Nor did most Republicans raise serious objections to any of the other bizarre characters whom the new administration called to office: Donna Shalala at Health and Human Services, Janet Reno at the Justice Department, Ron Brown at the Commerce Department, etc.
But the Republican performance during the Achtenberg debate is the clearest instance so far of the party’s own unsuitability to serve as the representative of Americans committed to the conservation of their moral and social norms in their public manifestations. What seems to drive the party, however, is not, as with liberal Democrats, the open embrace of cultural revolution so much as it is a profound ignorance of cultural norms themselves, how they might be defended, and how they are being discarded by their professed enemies. What Republicans fear is being called bigots, and they fear that label because many of them really are bigots—that is, persons who harbor prejudices against those who violate cultural norms but are so ignorant of the valid reasons for their prejudices that they are unable to defend them and are ashamed to admit to them. The Republican opponents of Miss Achtenberg instinctively knew something is wrong with her appointment, but they were totally unable to express, either to themselves or to the nation, what it was, with the result that they were unable to offer any compelling reasons for opposing her.
In the case of “sexual orientation,” as the current cant for perversion is known, the reasons for regarding it as relevant to public office-holding are really not difficult. Any society must regulate and discipline sexual impulses and must do so in terms of what is morally permissible as well as what is socially tolerable. In the absence of social and moral norms governing such sexual relationships as those of husband and wife, parent and child, elder and youth, and male and female generally, the human condition would indeed come to resemble Hobbes’ anarchic state of nature, since there would be no ready means to prevent the spontaneous sexual exploitation of the weak by the strong, and each act of exploitation would at once lead to the violence of jealousy and the extraction of revenge for transgression of sexual rights and relationships. Indeed, American sexual life already resembles just such a jungle, as the brutalization of women and children and the violence of homosexuals explodes, in large part because the abandonment of norms governing sexual conduct encourages opportunities for exploitation, revenge, and jealousy. One such norm has always been that those whose own lives are not governed by norms should not govern others.
Unlike the neurotically repressive sexual codes of Victorian times, healthy individuals and societies recognize the power of sexuality and allow for its satisfaction, but movements like that of the queer militants today demand far more than that. What they demand—and Miss Achtenberg has been in the forefront of this—is that men and women be defined through their sexuality, that sexuality become the most important measure of ourselves. The power of sexual impulses in most human beings is such that when the norms that govern them are weakened, sexuality escalates into such a consuming preoccupation that it becomes the defining dimension of the personality, with other dimensions being suppressed or ignored. It would not occur to a sexually normal male heterosexual nominated to Miss Achtenberg’s position to bring along his girl friend or his mistress to his confirmation hearing and introduce her to the senators—indeed, were Ted Kennedy on the committee, it might even be dangerous to the young lady to do so—because no normal heterosexual man defines himself as mainly or exclusively a sexual being, and all such men leave their sex lives in compartments separate from that of their business. The only people who do so define themselves, who do demand that their private sexual lives be stripped of all regulating norms and decorum and splashed about in public for all to goggle at, are those who have become so preoccupied by sex that they can think of themselves in no other dimension—in a word, those who are perverts. The proper place of sexuality (and other matters as well) in the normative codes of American society ought not to be too tough for all grown men and women to grasp, but it seems to be well over the heads of the Republican Party today.
It is not for nothing that John Stuart Mill called the conservatives of the 19th century “the Stupid Party.” In one sense, this was a compliment, since a certain stupidity is at all times necessary for the continuation of civilized life. Human beings cannot reinvent the wheel every week, so they have to keep making wheels the way they were raised to make them, and the repetition of inherited ways of doing and thinking often resembles the behavior of stupid men. Conservatives are those who insist at all times on continuing the stupid but essential routines of civilized life, and usually that is sufficient to keep the wheels of civilization turning.
But sometimes it is not enough, and the failure of Republicans today to perceive that the major issue of American politics is whether we should try to make the machinery of human society turn by inventing new kinds of wheels for it shows that this is one of those times. The ideal response to Miss Achtenberg would have been to hoot her and her supporters out of public life entirely and to leave her, Mrs. Moseley-Braun, Mr. Riegle, and the whole repulsive pack of them in a public pillory for a few days where the mobs could work their will on them with rotten eggs, dead cats, and decaying fruit. If the Republican Party were doing its job, if it even knew what its job is, at least the political and rhetorical equivalent of such public mockery of perverts and their minions could take place, and the norms of public and private life would be protected. As it is, the Republicans are the ones who are pilloried for even daring to suggest that there are any good reasons why a sapphic sister shouldn’t hold public office, and so weak, vapid, cowardly, and trivial has the resistance of the Stupid Party been to the cultural revolution that there is no good reason to say that the pillory is not where most of its members belong.