Jewish World Review April 30, 2003 / 28 Nissan, 5763

Andrew Ferguson

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Santorum meets the "controversy industry" | (Bloomberg) The delirious commotion surrounding last week's comments on gays by Rick Santorum, the junior and exceedingly Republican senator of Pennsylvania, shows signs of fading as a new week begins.

Before it vanishes entirely -- if indeed it does -- the episode deserves a lingering look. Even for those who, like me, hold no strong views one way or the other on the touchy subject of homosexual rights, Santorum's now infamous remarks and the reaction they provoked make for an instructive lesson in the way Washington works.

The to-do began when the Associated Press quoted Santorum's musings, offered up during an interview, on a pending Supreme Court challenge to Texas's anti-sodomy law.

AP's story hit the wires Monday morning, just as David Smith, communications director of the Washington-based gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, sat down at his desk to surf the web for his routine daily "survey of the gay news landscape.''

The AP writer had placed Santorum's newsmaking quote high in the story, where no reader could miss it:

"If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.''

Authentically Stunned

Sitting at his desk, Smith knew this was big.

"I was genuinely, authentically stunned at his comments,'' Smith said later. "I immediately contacted our allied organizations in Pennsylvania to see if they could help.''

By lunchtime, Smith and his colleagues had issued a statement condemning Santorum, long before even the most ardent news junkies had read the comments for which the senator was being condemned.

Playing off Smith's release, several Democratic politicians joined in with their own denunciations. By mid-afternoon Human Rights Campaign had received more than a dozen calls from news organizations eager to follow up.

Taking Off

"Tuesday morning, there were lots and lots of reaction stories,'' Smith said. "And it just took off.''

This is, after all, the purpose of advocacy groups. From little stories, they make big stories; where once there was no news, they create news that works to their own advantage or to the disadvantage of their political adversaries.

You'll find such groups across the political spectrum. Together they form Washington's largest private industry, whose sole product is controversy. Ten blocks from David Smith's office is the headquarters of the Family Research Council, which immodestly styles itself as "the nation's leading pro-family research organization.'' It too is in the controversy business.

"We saw what HRC was doing,'' says Richard Lessner, an FRC spokesman, "and we thought, hey, we could counter some of that.''

The Council's spokesmen offered pro-Santorum quotes for follow-up stories. Its president praised the senator on the syndicated radio show "Focus on the Family.'' Its website implored members "to call Congress and the White House'' in Santorum's defense.


Other conservative publicists, meanwhile, whispered that the reporter who wrote the AP story is married to the campaign manager of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who had been first to condemn Santorum's remarks.

There's only one thing professional advocates like better than a controversy, and here it was: a conspiracy!

A commotion does keep Washingtonians busy, but its very ferocity sometimes obscures what the commotion was about in the first place. The AP helpfully released a transcript of Santorum's interview, to refute the senator's charge that his remarks had been taken out of context.

Santorum was wrong. The story didn't quote him out of context. But he was badly -- and perhaps willfully -- misunderstood.

HRC spokesmen, for example, cited the quote above to charge that Santorum "equated'' homosexual activity with incest.

Well, no. Santorum was employing the familiar argumentative technique known as "reductio ad absurdum'' -- trying to disprove a proposition by showing that, carried to its logical conclusion, it leads to an absurdity. Gay rights groups have argued that certain sexual practices -- sodomy, in the Texas case -- are legally protected by a constitutional right to privacy.

But if that's so, on what grounds do you limit the right to privacy so that it doesn't legitimize incest or other traditionally proscribed private acts?

Shifting Mores

Santorum's point was that such limits are better set democratically, by representatives in state legislatures, who can more faithfully adapt the laws to shifting social mores than unelected Supreme Court justices invoking an infinitely elastic, poorly defined right to privacy.

"If New York doesn't want sodomy laws,'' Santorum told AP, "if the people of New York want abortion, fine. I mean, I wouldn't agree with it, but that's their right. But I don't agree with the Supreme Court coming in'' and settling the issue by non- democratic means.

Far from being out of the mainstream, Santorum's view is precisely that of the Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case that itself was an earlier attempt by activists to overturn state sodomy laws through federal judicial fiat.

Why did so unexceptional a view as Santorum's entangle most of Washington in delirious controversy for nearly a week? It is what the capital's vast advocacy industry requires. There must be controversy or the industry will wither and die from disuse.

"I really don't think this is over yet,'' HRC's Smith told me.

"I'd be surprised if it's over,'' FRC's Lessner said.

Of course, they wouldn't have it any other way.

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Andrew Ferguson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Bloomberg News