Commentary Magazine


Condoms in Peoria

On the television program, the Gong Show, any of the three judges could sound a large gong if one of the acts being rehearsed by amateur performers was particularly poor. At this past Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, sponsored by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was asked a simple question: “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” His answer: “It’s a choice!”

Wrong answer! No one sounded a gong, but given the ensuing raised eyebrows, the ensuing criticism, the ensuing Richardson campaign “clarification,” and the ensuing Richardson excuse—“jet lag”—one should have been.

One needs a careful map to walk through the minefield of interest-group politics within the Democratic party. According to gay-rights theology, if homosexuality is seen as a choice, that could weaken the case for equal rights. As Jonathan Capehart sardonically notes in today’s Washington Post, “the forum’s organizers hoped to get the candidates to show their concern for the gay and lesbian community and to see whether their understanding emanated from their consultant-generated talking points or from their hearts. Clearly, Richardson’s head needed some work.”

Richardson is not the only Democratic candidate struggling to get out in front of sexual issues. Whether their sound-bites are emanating from hearts or minds or consultants, they are all engaging in contortions, some of them comical, to say the correct thing.

At a “Presidential Forum” at Howard University in June, Senators Joe Biden and Barack Obama, perhaps competing to be superior role models, both boasted about how they had been tested for AIDS. Biden won the contest by adding: “I spent last summer going through the black sections of my town holding rallies in parks, trying to get black men to understand that it’s not unmanly to wear a condom.”

One can’t help wondering how this sort of sexual politics might play out, not just in the Democratic debates and primaries, but afterward, in the general election. Bill Clinton was hardly the first President to engage in sex in the White House with someone other than his wife. But he was unquestionably the first to put the subject under the spotlight for years on end. Is his legacy now continuing to unfold?

Most Americans, it is safe to say, are deeply interested in sex. But are they also interested in hearing about it from presidential candidates on a daily basis? How, one wonders, will this brand of political exhibitionism play in Peoria?