Only in My Backyard

by Margaret Carlson

Laura Ingraham, the CBS and MSNBC analyst, is as hard as a diamond. Her killer views against gays, feminists, gun-control advocates and welfare stand out even in that booming segment of the instant-pundit industry: right-wing women commentators. That's why her recent essay in the Washington Post apologizing for her rabid intolerance of gays dropped like a bombshell. Notorious in her student days for vilifying "sodomites" in the Dartmouth Review -- and for sending a reporter to tape a Gay Students Association meeting, then naming names -- she wrote that she changed her views after witnessing "the dignity, fidelity and courage" with which her brother and his late companion coped with AIDS. She now understands why gays need protection and regrets her "callous rhetoric."

That might have been the end of that, except that when you shoot to the top of the pundit food chain just a year after shedding your lawyer's pinstripes without any tedious apprenticeships, no good deed goes unchallenged. Jeffrey Hart, the Review's faculty adviser, sent a memo to the Weekly Standard saying that Ingraham had some nerve dragging the Review into her "phony political confession given that no one else there held, as she did, "the most extreme anti-homosexual views imaginable." He says she went so far as to avoid a local eatery where she feared the waiters were homosexual and might touch her silverware or spit on her food, exposing her to AIDS.

But Hart misses the real problem with Ingraham's public conversion. It's not that it glosses over her prior actions, or wrongly implicates others or smacks of self-congratulation. It's that it is a haphazard, self-limiting approach to public policy -- and there's a lot of that going around these days. Hard-nosed budget hawk Senator Pete Domenici, whose daughter has suffered from mental illness, expensively amended the Kennedy-Kassebaum health-care bill to cover such afflictions. Conservative Republican Senator Al D'Amato, whose top political strategist is homosexual, supports gays in the military. Antiregulation Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, whose daughter was tragically killed in an auto accident in 1993, opposed repeal of the federal 55-m.p.h. speed limit last year. And columnist George Will, who derides mushy liberal programs, has written movingly in support of government programs that help his son, who has Down syndrome.

Even the leap of moral imagination required to change one's public stance based on personal experience is too much for some politicians with gay relatives -- like Phyllis Schlafly (her son), Newt Gingrich (his half-sister) or former Bush Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher (his daughter). But one-to-one conversions are no substitute for empathy. Equal rights for gays will be slow in coming if each of us has to find a gay person to love. By that standard, what would it take for a conservative to embrace the assault-weapon ban -- mayhem at Starbucks? For expanded health insurance -- a sister unable to get cancer treatment? For abortion rights -- a daughter who's pregnant?

Ingraham said that until her brother's ordeal she didn't understand the urgency for AIDS funding, the problems gay couples face with insurance and the emotional strain of continuing discrimination. But doesn't a commentator have a responsibility to find out about such things before venturing an opinion, even if it means looking outside your own tribe?
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