Will Barack’s Little Dog Bo Be Next? Annals of Tearoom Journalism

May 3, 2009, 12:14 pm

I was going to write about something completely different today. Then, when pulling together my URL’s for that post, I ran into this commentary at Gawker headlined: “Bill O’Reilly Wonders Why Gay New York Times Reporter Acts So Gay.”

Needless to say, I clicked, since it is part of my DNA to click on all things that promise gayness.

Apparently Jeff Zeleny, a New York Times reporter who is, in fact, gay, asked Barack Obama what has most “enchanted” him about being President in the first 100 days (along with what has surprised and humbled him.) Media Matters was the first to report what millions of Fox News viewers saw shortly afterwards, which was an exchange between Bill O’Reilly and Bernard Goldberg that you can view for yourself here, along with Zeleny’s original remarks:

Goldberg went on at length about the lack of masculinity displayed by the reporter as O’Reilly chuckled in a particularly manly fashion. Goldberg then asserted that no one would have asked “John Wayne presidents like FDR, Truman or Eisenhower if they were ‘enchanted.’”

I do beg to differ.

FDR’s upper class manners were not infrequently perceived as and mocked for being effeminate, and in retrospect, the Fala speech, given in the midst of the 1944 campaign, is pretty camp by modern standards. “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons,” Roosevelt lamented on his weekly radio broadcast with deadpan humour:

No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. [laughter] Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks — but Fala does resent them. [laughter] You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. [laughter] He has not been the same dog since. [laughter] I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog [laughter].

We also know that Alice Roosevelt, a right-wing Republican, America Firster and a daughter of the vigorous Oyster Bay branch (from whom O’Reilly and Goldberg can claim direct ideological descent) used to refer to her Hyde Park cousin as “Feather Duster Roosevelt.” It couldn’t have been clearer what she meant by that, particularly since she knew what the general public did not: that FDR could only use his legs and lower body for balance. Since Alice Blue Eyes also undoubtedly knew that Eleanor Roosevelt traveled in lesbian company, she may have suspected that her presidential cousin was sexually impaired as well. How better to communicate this in an era when one did not discuss sex in public than to refer to him disparagingly as the soft household equivalent of a feather boa?

But let’s leave behind the manipulation of the historical record and return to contemporary homophobia. If you watched the video you know that eventually Goldberg noted that if he, Goldberg, asked O’Reilly if he were enchanted, O’Reilly would probably “punch me in the head;” O’Reilly’s corresponding chuckle affirmed that yes, he probably would. Imagine the brawl between these he-men if Goldberg tapped his toe when O’Reilly was in the next stall. I’m fwightened.

But you kept watching I hope. Because although Gawker goes on at length about the offense to Zeleny, if you listen a little more closely the real target is Obama’s masculinity and heterosexuality, not Zeleny’s. The central question, and the focus of the subsequent discussion, is: what kind of a President would invite, and receive (we shudder at what that means, Mary) an effeminate question from a gay reporter? Indeed, this allegation about Obama was raised as early as February, 2008, accoriding to the Huffington Post, by none other than the Republican National Committee. “An unnamed Republican spokesperson, while making no value judgments on the homosexual lifestyle,” HuffPost reported, “other than it being an abomination against God, implied that the photo certainly raised doubts about the Senator’s image as a loving husband, as well as his overall honesty.” If you click on the link, you will be disappointed: methinks it is Obama, after a meeting with John Edwards (I recognize the hair), and they are embracing, not making out. Charges that President Obama has a gay past have been printed in the National Enquirer and elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m always happy to find out that anyone is gay (and I tend to be magnanomous and treat everyone I like as though they are my equal in this regard) but let’s be clear that these attacks are not about facts or actual gayness. What is going on is an attempt to derail the Obama administration and plan for what promises to be an ugly 2010 election cycle by deploying a familiar political strategy: implying that one’s political opposition is not sexually normal. As Andrea Friedman has noted in her prize-winning article, ‘The Smearing of Joe McCarthy: The Lavender Scare, Gossip, and Cold War Politics” (American Quarterly, December 2005) homophobic invective charges of effeminacy are common methods of undermining the legitimacy of political figures. I make a related argument in my own prize-winning article,”Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies and Political History” (Journal of the History of Sexuality July 2006) in which I cite Friedman’s work. I mention the prizes to suggest to an audience broader than academic historians that these are not fringe arguments, but mainstream approaches to thinking about goon squads made up of the likes of O’Reilly and Goldberg.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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