Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alvin McEwen Headshot

The Right's Unsuccessful Smear Campaign Against Kevin Jennings

Posted: Updated:

Despite a heavy December effort last year by various groups, i.e., Big Government, Gateway Pundit, Fox News, etc., the push to get Obama appointee Kevin Jennings fired died back in October when the charge that he aided and abetted the sexual abuse of a child turned out to be a false accusation and an embarrassment to the right.

When President Obama initially appointed Jennings to be the Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, I doubt he realized that his political enemies would attack Jennings with the unrelenting stridency of the Greeks attacking the city of Troy.

But they did and it made for an interesting part of 2009 as members of the right pored through Jennings' past writing and speeches in an attempt to find reasons to have him dismissed and, by extention, embarrass the Obama Administration.

As the situation progressed, it became less of a campaign fueled by righteous indignation and a desire to protect children (which it never was in the first place) and served as an example of the mad goings on in Washington as well as the depths some people will stoop in order to push a lie.

Not too many people are aware of this, but some on the right had bad blood with Jennings long before his appointment to the Obama Administration.

Jennings, an openly gay former teacher, founded GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Network), an organization largely responsible for gay student awareness in high schools, most specifically through the annual Day of Silence in which participating students take a vow of silence during the day to bring attention to the bullying of gay students.

However to some on the right, specifically the religious right, acknowledging the simple fact that gay students exist is a problem (they like to use the word "recruitment" a lot) and daring to devote any iota of attention to the problems these students face because of an unsupportive environment is akin to the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

For years, organizations such as Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, and the rest of the usual suspects have unsuccessfully tried to either eliminate or undermine the Day of Silence with the most recent failed attempt being the Day of Truth, in which they encourage students to tell the truth about homosexuality.

Of course the truth to them encompasses either citing discredited Paul Cameron studies or legitimate studies taken out of context.

The fact that Obama chose Jennings, a man whom they have already had negative history with, was probably something that they couldn't stomach from the get-go.

Had Jennings been dismissed it would have been a huge victory for them and it would have caused two problems for the President.

It would have further strained a relationship he has with the gay community over a seemingly reluctance to pursue their issues, despite his insistence that he would be a "fierce advocate" for their rights.

Second and most important, Jennings' dismissal would have added to a meme that the Obama Administration is trying to change America for the worst and in pursuit of this doesn't "vet" its choices well.

Throughout the early part of the entire mess, various false charges had been thrown at Jennings (he supports NAMBLA, he encourages children to read pornography, he encourages children to engage in deviant sex acts) but none were more serious than the claim that he aided and abetted the statutory rape of a student.

Jennings had told the story on many occasions in order to highlight the problem of gay youth isolation. When he was a teacher, a young man he called Brewster had confided in him that he met an older male at a bus station. Allegedly Brewster was 15-years-old at the time, but Jennings did not report the incident.

When this became public, religious right groups (who had already been lobbying to get rid of Jennings), Fox News, and various other right-wing entities called for his head.

Some clearly had their eyes on another "victory" against the Obama Administration after advisor Van Jones, whose resignation was a partial result of their prying into his past associations.

However, their desire for a second high profile resignation fizzled when the watchdog group Media Matters came out with a statement from Brewster saying that he was of legal age of consent at the time of the incident Brewster also provided his driver's license to Media Matters, verifying this.

In addition, Brewster also said that he did not have any sexual content with the older male

For many on the left, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, those on the right scrambled through a messy course of action which included halfhearted apologies, a shifting of talking points, or just stubbornly sticking to refuted claims.

Sean Hannity, who had earlier stated that he wanted Jennings fired, began sensing his chance to gain a "scalp" slipping away. He gave a weak comment that he had a problem with the "time line" of Brewster's story.

Others tried to shift the focus of their argument, claiming that it didn't matter that Brewster was of legal age, despite the fact that Brewster's alleged age was the very anchor on which they had rested their arguments against Jennings.

The most egregious attempt to continue to attack Jennings came when 53 House Republicans signed on to a letter demanding his removal, specifically because of Brewster. The letter even claimed that the young man was not of legal age. It was later discovered that while Rep. Steve King had led the effort behind this campaign, his office was informed of Brewster's true age before the letter was sent out.

After this, for all intensive purposes, the attacks on Jennings tapered off.

That is until December. During that time, the "news" webpage Big Government began publishing a mind-bogglingly inacccurate series of "exposes" worthy of the National Enquirer.

The exposes brought up the same refuted distortions mentioned above and proceeded to add new charges on almost a daily basis, including claims that Jennings encouraged students to pick up men in gay bars and that his organization passed out "fisting kits."

That last lie was extremely desperate because Big Government actually showed a picture of the so-called "fisting kit." But the picture proved that the kit was for creating "dental dams," which are used to prevent the spread of STDs during oral sex.

And these kits were not passed out by GLSEN but Planned Parenthood.

Big Government gave every expose the same title, "Fistgate," echoing an earlier distortion that Jennings was teaching children dangerous sex acts, a story which had already been exposed as false.

The only difference in the titles were the numbers. For each new pseudo controversy, Big Government added the corresponding sequential number.

It was clear that Big Government wasn't just throwing the kitchen sink at Jennings, but also what one finds under the kitchen sink.

At last count, the site is up to "Fistgate 14."

But as soon as every accusation was lodged, they were successfully knocked down by Media Matters, causing much of the venom from the right to shift from Jennings to the watchdog group for being a "spoilsport" and daring to throw a monkeywrench in their crusade.

As the charges got more lurid, filthier, and more unbelievable, it became more and more apparent that the mainstream news media recognized an attempted sleazy character assassination when they saw one.

Other than Fox News, the Washington Times, and various other right-wing news outlets and blogs, no other media outlet covered the new charges and Big Government began to look less like Woodward and Bernstein and more like an unruly child acting out to gain his mother's attention.

And while the mainstream media continued to ignore the new phony charges, attention began to shift away from Jennings and onto the assorted cast of characters behind the attacks on him, such as:

Mass Resistance, a Massachusetts organization designated as an official hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for such exploits as claiming that gays in the state were pushing for bestiality,

and Linda Harvey, a "Christian expert" on the gay community who once said that anyone supporting gays should not be allowed around children, period.

But just when things couldn't get stranger, an overeagerness to yet again paint Jennings as a pedophile provided another moment of embarrassment for the right.

An intern at the right-wing group AIM (Accuracy in Media) published a post claiming that Jennings was a pedophile and that there were videos of him teaching children "fisting" and oral sex. AIM retracted the post and publicly apologized to Jennings.

If the Brewster incident didn't effectively kill the momentum of the anti-Jennings hysteria coffin, this fiasco did.

For now, except amongst the most extreme (i.e., those who still believe either that Obama is not a United States citizen or that Jesus is returning next week), the accusations against Jennings are either ignored or recognized for the homophobic ramblings that they are.

But they do serve a purpose. Jennings is now the new boogeyman of the right or a symbol of supposedly what the "radical homosexual agenda has in store for America's children."

This may not be a big problem, however. Jennings may be the model for a time but no doubt a new one is just around the corner. Some members of the right tend to create left-wing boogeymen in the same manner that record producers sell artists to the public - push one until he or she is no longer hot, then push another.

Now the sad thing about this controversy is that a lot of attention which should have been focused on the needs of gay students was diverted. Their stories of rejection, their problems, and their very lives was exploited in an attempt to destroy the very person who had their back.

However there is a positive out of all of it

It's been more than 30 years since Anita Bryant riled up Dade County residents against a gay rights ordinance via stories of gay men recruiting and raping children. And while we like to believe that America have progressed as a society in terms of understanding the gay community, there are still some who readily believe the lies that gays are trying to "recruit children" and that homosexuality and pedophilia are connected.

But the irony is that while these notions defeated a pro-gay ordinance in 1978, this time the overeagerness by some on the right to exploit them was probably the very thing which may have saved Jennings and at the same time revealed the absence of integrity of those who consistently demonize the gay community as well as the recklessness of some of the President's critics.

Thus proving that kismet always has a way of coming back and giving a much needed bite on the ass.