Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and George W. Bush's 2004 campaign manager, has revealed that he is gay. Mehlman presided over the RNC during an era when anti-gay ballot measures were a strategy for driving voter turnout amongst social conservatives. He is the most influential Republican ever to come out, and his revelation is being greeted with a very mixed response.
Mehlman spoke with The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder to make his revelation. According to Ambinder, Mehlman says that he only recently came to terms with his sexuality, and has now revealed it because, Ambinder summarizes, "now in private life, he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage and anticipated that questions would arise about his participation in a late-September fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that supported the legal challenge to California's ballot initiative against gay marriage, Proposition 8."
This turn-around presents a complex moral problem, about which Ambinder questioned Mehlman. While head of the RNC, Mehlman was implicitly associated with (though he says he did not personally endorse) strategies to use homophobia as a spur to conservative election-day turnout. Now, he says he recognizes that, had he come out at the time, he might have been able to shift the Republican agenda away from gay-baiting. "It's a legitimate question and one I understand," Mehlman said. "I can't change the fact that I wasn't in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally." And, he continued, "I wish I was where I am today 20 years ago. The process of not being able to say who I am in public life was very difficult. No one else knew this except me. My family didn't know. My friends didn't know. Anyone who watched me knew I was a guy who was clearly uncomfortable with the topic."
Not everyone was surprised by the revelation, as Mehlman's sexuality was the subject of a great deal of speculation in recent years. The blogger Mike Rogers, who tries to out gay politicians, has for years insisted that Mehlman was gay. The rumors reached the ears of Bill Maher, who mentioned them on Larry King Live in 2006. In an interesting twist, CNN chose to edit Maher's remarks out of the taped editions of the show and from the transcript.
Here is the unedited video of Bill Maher on Larry King, discussing what he perceives as the hypocrisy of the Republican anti-gay agenda:
Now that he is out, Mehlman has no intention of switching political parties. He told Marc Ambinder, "What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party's philosophy, whether it's the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong committment to each other to get married." But he is, he says, also committed to marriage equality, and to bringing a new crew of supporters to the American Foundation for Equal Rights.