12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kevin Jennings: Obama Aide Under Attack From Fox News, Conservatives

Conservative media figures have set their sights on another obscure Obama administration official. This time it's Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Right-wingers, outraged by Jennings' work as a gay-rights advocate, claim that he has expressed a desire to spread homosexuality among schoolkids, contempt for religion and enthusiasm for drug use. (The Family Research Council has a scare-quote filled petition circulating.) Those hits have been rebuffed by people who have actually worked with Jennings. But the charge that's gained traction is that Jennings, while a high school teacher, failed to report a statutory rape. He said in a talk that he counseled a student who went home with a man he met in a bus station:

JENNINGS: And I said, "Brewster, what are you doing in there asleep?" And he said, "Well, I'm tired." And I said, "Well, we all are tired and we all got to school today." And he said, "Well, I was out late last night." And I said, "What were you doing out late on a school night?" And he said, "Well, I was in Boston." Boston was about 45 minutes from Concord. So I said, "What were you doing in Boston on a school night, Brewster?" He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, "Well, I met somebody in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him." High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people. I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn't know what to say. Knew I should say something quickly, so I finally -- my best friend had just died of AIDS the week before -- I looked at Brewster and said, "You know, I hope you knew to use a condom." He said to me something I will never forget. He said "Why should I, my life isn't worth saving anyway."

But the student was actually at least 16 at the time. The age of consent in Massachusetts was (and still is) 16; all Jennings did was choose not to share his knowledge of a consensual, legal sexual relationship. Nevertheless, Fox News and the Washington Times have reported that Jennings was "encouraging" statutory rape. The distorted story was picked up by Politico's Mike Allen, who called it a "problem": "He didn't seem to recognize that given this young man's age, this was an assault, and that it should be reported." ABC News and the Associated Press have also reported on the story.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the Jennings critics "sad" on Thursday.

"I think it's a shame to watch what they do," Gibbs said. "I hope that as people watch, they'll match up the actual truth with what's being said on some of these occasions."

Fox News' Sean Hannity has been particularly focused on Jennings; Greg Sargent speculates that he's jealous of the attention his colleague Glenn Beck got for his successful crusade against Van Jones.

The ombudsmen of the New York Times and the Washington Post chastised their papers for not picking up on previous smear campaigns fueled by fringe conservatives; how they will handle the attacks on Jennings remains to be seen.

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