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When Lee Atwater and a Newt Gingrich Aide Tried to Gay-Bait Tom Foley

Toru Yamakaka/AFP/Getty Images

TRB From Washington: Atwatergate

July 3, 1989

Former House Speaker Tom Foley died today at age 84. Foley led the House of Representatives between 1989 and the Republican revolution of 1994. A few days before he became speaker, a scandal erupted over a Republican National Committee memo entitled "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet" and comparing the Spokane Congressman to openly gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. An aide to Newt Gingrich, then the House Republican whip, encouraged reporters to look into the sexuality of Foley, who had been married since 1968. President George H.W. Bush eventually condemned the memo—though he stood by RNC Chairman Lee Atwater, a longtime aide. Here is The New Republic's July 3, 1989 TRB From Washington column on the affair: 

Let's wallow in Atwatergate, shall we?

Now that the initial cycle of defamation, denial, showy indignation, and scapegoating is over, behavioral sink buffs can examine at leisure some of the documents, modified limited hangout alibis, and warm if not smoking guns left behind at the scene of Washington's latest episode of political wilding.

Item: the closet memorandum. It was issued by the Republican National Committee, of which Lee Atwater is the hip-talking, hip-shooting chairman, on the eve of Thomas Foley's election as Speaker of the House. Its title is "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet." The text details points of agreement between Foley's voting record and that of Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Item: the initial defense. Atwater said, "I don't think it's that big of a deal." Lesser functionaries insisted that no sexual innuendo was intended. The closet metaphor, they maintained, was purely political: Foley is a liberal who pretends to be a moderate. "The insinuation or statement that this is a sideways smear campaign is absolutely false," said Mark Goodin, the RNC communications director; Barney Frank was chosen as the comparison solely because he is a well-known liberal who used to be president of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).

To accept these explanations one would have to begin by accepting the dubious theory that Frank is uniquely qualified to represent House liberals, even though he is known for the heterodoxy of his opinions (he recently advised liberals to forget about gun control, for example), and even though the current president of ADA, Ted Weiss of New York, is also a member of the House. More to the point, one would have to believe that the memo's authors were unaware (a) that the primary meaning of the phrase "out of the closet" is to denote the public disclosure of previously concealed homosexuality; (b) that Frank is a gay person who became nationally famous when he came out of the closet two years ago; or (c) that for weeks prior to the release of the memo Foley had been the target of a campaign of scurrilous but unpublished rumors suggesting that he too is gay, and perforce closeted. ("We hear it's little boys," an aide to Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip, had been going around saying.)

Under these circumstances, for the RNC to put out a memo titled "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet" and then to deny any overtones of gay-bashing is like putting out a memo titled "Pat Schroeder: That Liberal Time of the Month" and denying any overtones of sexism, or putting out a memo titled "Bill Gray: Liberal in the Woodpile" and denying any overtones of racism. In fact it's worse, because in the case of the closet memo an appeal to mindless bigotry is combined with a groundless imputation of the quality on which the bigotry battens. And the reason for the choice of Frank? "Let's put it this way," he told me. "I don't think I was selected as a result of a regression analysis."

Item: the fallback defense. After Republican outrage began to be heard—Foley is popular with his colleagues in both parties—Atwater telephoned the new Speaker to apologize. The next day indignation against the memo reached a crescendo. Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, called it "garbage." The White House put out the word that President Bush thought it was "disgusting." Atwater began saying it had been written and released without his knowledge, though this was not, I am told, the impression he had left in his conversation with Foley. By nightfall Goodin had resigned. The night after that. Bush held a prime-time news conference. He repeated that the memo was disgusting, adding: "But I discussed that matter with Lee Atwater. He looked me right in the eye and said he did not know about it."

The vigor of this investigation speaks for itself.

Item: the June issue of Esquire, which has a picture of Lee Atwater with his pants down. They're sweat pants, and he's wearing opaque running shorts, and it's part of a tree-wasting feature on how celebrities put their pants on o ne leg at a time just like the rest of us, so it's not as tasteless as it sounds. It is, however, as idiotic as it sounds.

Strictly speaking, I suppose, the Esquire picture doesn't belong on this list of items, since it has no obvious connection to the closet memo. I include it as a relatively benign sample of Atwater's frat-boy, gross-out sense of humor, which is more often cruel. A famous instance was his crack about Tom Turnipseed, a populist Democratic candidate for Congress in South Carolina in 1980, who as a teenager had undergone electroconvulsive therapy for depression. Turnipseed accused Atwater, no doubt accurately, of engineering a bogus “poll” in which white voters were called and asked if it would change their opinion of Turnipseed to know that he was a member of the NAACP. Atwater didn't bother to deny it. Instead he said he wasn't about to answer charges from someone who had once been "hooked up to jumper cables."

Whatever his role in the closet memo, there's no doubt it's the sort of thing he'd think was funny. After all, when he was managing Bush's campaign last year he thought it was funny to play on racial fears by using the Willie Horton case against Michael Dukakis, and he got many a chuckle out of impugning Dukakis's patriotism with the Pledge of Allegiance "issue."

Even though the backlash turned out to be unexpectedly severe, the fact remains that the memo worked. There is precisely the same amount of evidence that George Bush, Lee Atwater, and Mikhail Gorbachev are gay as that Tom Foley is—i.e., none. But only Foley has had to deny it. Only Foley will spend the rest of his life meeting people who have the thought of it somewhere in the back of their minds. Only Foley will have a paragraph about it in his biography. That is why those Democrats (and Republicans) who have called for Atwater's resignation are right. Damage has been done. A proportionate price should be exacted, not so much for the sake of justice as for the sake of deterrence.

Barney Frank, by the way, knows about deterrence. At a conference of political operatives and reporters at Harvard last weekend, I found surprising unanimity that the decisive factor in squelching the anti-Foley smear campaign had been Frank's threat to name five gay Republicans on Capitol Hill. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have actually done it. But then, isn't the purpose of possessing nuclear weapons to ensure that they never have to be used?

Frank, like many others, is unhappy about the underlying premise of the closet memo flap: That calling someone gay ipso facto a smear. "But the reality is that we still have a prejudiced society," he says. "When FDR was being called 'Rosenfeld' and 'Rosenstein,' it wasn't inconsistent with opposition to anti-Semitism for people to point out that he was not in fact Jewish." In any case, Frank has done wonders for the "image" of gay people by facing down the bigots. "The humiliation of the Republicans was total—done in by a Democrat in lavender drawers," wrote one of them, a columnist for the Washington Times. Right now Barney Frank is the baddest dude in town, and more power to him.