They were supposed to be gay rights champions in a White House filled with antigay activists. Mary Matalin, a former top adviser to Dick Cheney, and Mary Cheney, the vice president's out lesbian daughter, seemed poised to become the conscience of the Republican Party at a time when the right wing is bent on rolling back gains in the fight for legal and political equality.
But by June the two women, who are friends and confidantes, were suddenly looking a lot less like saviors. Cheney abruptly resigned from the board of a prominent gay rights group, the Republican Unity Coalition, offering no public reason for her departure. Matalin, who has supported a variety of gay causes, defended U.S. senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania after he compared homosexuality to bestiality, polygamy, and incest in a discussion of sodomy laws.
Santorum is a "wonderful, caring, loving man" and a "great senator," Matalin said during a May 11 guest appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. She also attacked the RUC, saying it had "raised the tolerance bar" by refusing to grant Santorum the right to express his religious convictions. Charles Francis, the coalition's founder and chairman, declined to comment on Matalin's remarks, but one colleague described him as "extremely upset" by her apparent about-face. Matalin's husband, Democratic operative and TV commentator James Carville, who appeared with her on Meet the Press, dismissed her arguments as "cockamamy."
Because the incidents came shortly after the Santorum dustup--and pro-gay comments by Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot that angered the religions right--some gay activists speculate that Cheney and Matalin were responding to White House pressure to rein in pro-gay activity in the party. Whatever the case, there was no avoiding the damage the episodes have had on President Bush's attempt to put a more compassionate face on the party's relationship with gays and lesbians.
"Gay Republicans and pro-gay Republicans are in a really tight bind," says Hastings Wyman, editor of the biweekly Southern Political Report. "They have to either play along with the White House line or abandon ship, and neither Mary Cheney nor Mary Matalin, with their ties to Dick Cheney, are in a position to do that. So Mary [Cheney] has apparently decided to pull back, while Mary Matalin is reversing course a little bit. I think the GOP effort to draw more gay votes is stalling."
Matalin, who told The Advocate in 2000 that "to discriminate or even be judgmental about gays is plain wrong," insists that her views have not changed. People misinterpreted her comments on Meet the Press, says Matalin, who left the Administration in December. "I remain a strong gay rights supporter," she says. "What I said was that we should respect the religious views of those who do not agree with us. I do not support sodomy laws. But I do object to the lack of tolerance for religious views, and I don't think that Santorum is one of the loonies. What we have to do is stop the idiocy on all sides."
For Mary Cheney, the decision to sever ties with the RUC is less shocking. The former liaison to gays and lesbians for the Coors Brewing Co. of Golden, Colo., has steadfastly sought to avoid the limelight and protect her privacy since her father took office.
"Mary will probably never be able to satisfy the standards of gay people by using her family ties for the betterment of the gay community," says Bob Witeck, a Washington, D.C., gay businessman and friend of Mary Cheney's. "None of us can imagine how hard it would be to find ourselves between our family and our community. It would cause anyone tremendous heartache."
Witeck notes that clamping down on dissenting relatives is a White House tradition stretching back at least to the Jimmy Carter era: "It would take a particularly self-confident administration to not mind if a family member spoke out in opposition on any issue, and this administration has elevated the art of discipline to a whole new level. …