There once was a time, in our Mad Men culture, when gays and guys were deemed to be different species. Gays were womanly and weird; guys were manly and normal.
But now comes Steve Lonegan, the born-to-lose conservative candidate in the New Jersey Senate race, to inform us that it's still circa 1960, that the old stereotypical demarcations remain in force, that gays are gays and guys are guys and never the twain shall meet. As Johnny Carson used to say, "This I did not know!"
Forget the war clouds for a moment (they'll be hovering for awhile anyway), and check out the snore-worthy contest that concludes on Oct. 16 when Lonegan morphs into roadkill. Democrat Cory Booker will become the sole elected African-American in the Senate chamber, and Lonegan will demonstrate yet again that a fringe Republican has zero chance of being elected statewide in blue-leaning Jersey.
The race has been largely substance-free, which perhaps explains why the late-summer spat about Booker's sexuality has garnered so much attention. But this episode has actually been quite instructive. Once again, the reactionary utterings of a right-wing Senate candidate have undercut the GOP's attempts to craft a more inclusive national image.
It all began with an August profile of Booker in The Washington Post. Early in the piece, while addressing old rumors that he might be gay, Booker (who's 42 and single, thus rumor-worthy) said: "And people who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful. Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I’m straight.'"
Booker's remarks were totally in sync with today's centrist American zeitgeist - on the issue of whether he's gay or straight, who cares? - but somehow, inexplicably, Lonegan smelled an opportunity.
An opportunity to paint himself as the He-Man candidate.
In the friendly confines of Newsmax, the conservative website, Lonegan shared his thoughts about Booker's remarks: "It's kind of weird. As a guy, I personally like being a guy. I don't know if you saw the stories last year. They've been out for quite a bit about how he likes to go out at three o'clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure. I don't like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish. I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That's my fetish but we'll just compare the two."
I personally like being a guy...as opposed to what he called "acting ambiguous."
A real man has a Scotch and cigar; a girly man has a manicure.
(Lonegan was referring to a 2012 magazine story, where Booker was quoted as saying: "I had an ex-girlfriend who ruined me in terms of my macho ex-football player self. She turned me on to mani-pedis....It's this guilty pleasure I have.")
Naturally, Lonegan's reactionary outburst has been a political boon for Booker. How awesome it must be to have an opponent who's so out of step with the mainstream. The Washington Post-ABC News poll says that 58 percent of Americans, and 81 percent of those under age 30, now support gay marriage - vivid evidence of a 'tude revolution. The gay-guy dichotomy is passe.
Booker duly slam-dunked Lonegan in response (albeit with rhetorical overkill): "It's just disheartening to hear somebody, in this day and age, in the United States of America, say basically...that gay men are not men, they're not guys. It's shocking to one's conscience in this country, where we believe that the content of one's character, the courage in one's heart, the strength of one's sense of purpose, the love that one has for others and their service, is what defines them. And instead he's challenging the masculinity of millions of Americans."
Booker is basically getting a free ride in this Senate race. Some skeptics have long contended that he's too close to Wall Street, but Lonegan, as a former state director of a Koch brothers front group, is the least credible guy to raise that issue. Instead, he's doing what ideologues do best - ceding the middle ground. And, much like washout Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock, he's discomfiting a national party that desperately needs that middle ground.
Last winter, GOP chairman Reince Priebus said the party can't succeed nationally unless it becomes more tolerant and inclusive. He specifically addressed the challenge of wooing gay people: "I think it's about being decent. I think it's about dignity and respect - that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished, or people don’t deserve to be disrespected." Lonegan, in thrall to his guyness, never got the memo.