In 2007, Out magazine ranked top New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney - along with The Times 'Gay Mafia' - Richard Berke, Ben Brantley, Frank Bruni, Stuart Elliott, Stefano Tonchi, and Eric Wilson - as No. 7 on their Top 50 Gays of that year. They were bested by: 1. David Geffen; 2. Anderson Cooper; 3. Ellen DeGeneres; 4. Tim Gill; 5. Barney Frank; and 6. Rosie O'Donnell.
So the news on Huffington Post Thursday that Nagourney is coming to LA to head up that paper's bureau is welcome - especially if the Los Angeles Times thinks they need to be competitive about coverage of the LGBT community as a result. A friend of mine recently told a story of having lunch with an LA Times city editor and after discussing the profound LGBT history coming out of Los Angeles, asked the editor: Why don't you cover us? "We don't need to," the editor replied.
Nagoureny is the New York Times' chief national political correspondent - having come to the paper after covering Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign for USA Today. The Times then assigned him to cover Clinton's re-election rival in 1996, Republican Sen. Bob Dole. He was named chief political correspondent in 2002, covered George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and the 2008 presidential campaign.
Nagourney did not give the Huffington Post an interview, but the site reports that as L.A. bureau chief, "Nagourney will handle a national and business reporting staff as well as leading coverage of Hollywood and California politics."
However, as LGBTs know, being openly gay does not necessarily mean more or favorable coverage of LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.
So who is Adam Nagourney, gay-wise? Well, to begin with, he's the co-author with Dudley Clendinen of the massive 716-page book Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in a blurb: "Out for Good is the monumental story, told with exquisite writing, vivid detail, and a grand narrative sweep, of one of the most important movements of the twentieth century." Critics across the LGBT political spectrum such as Doug Ireland and Jonathan Rauch gave the book rave reviews when it came out in 1999. Click here to read a sample of their take on LA gay history.
Not everyone was pleased with the book, however. The late Morris Kight complained vociferously to anyone who would listen about some inaccuracies in how he was portrayed.
"As I recall, he referred to it as "Out for Disinformation," says Miki Jackson, one of Kight's longtime friends. "He basically thought Adam said what he thought would get him the farthest in his career and the facts could take the hindmost. That's an old southern-ism referring to a saying that the 'devil could take the hindmost.'"
However, Kight was also renown for his exaggerations, a description which Jackson suggested might even be an "understatement."
Personally, I've found Out for Good very useful and the only time I met Nagourney - at the 2008 California Democratic Convention in LA - I thanked him for writing it. But let me extrapolate for a minute on Nagourney as a gay reporter.
If Nagourney covered Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992, he must have been aware of New York Times reporter Jeffrey Schmalz, who died of AIDS on Nov. 6, 1993 at age 39. Most LGBT journalists I know were aware of Schmalz because his struggle crystallized the dilemma so many of us felt about being gay and/or a person with AIDS at a time when there were no HIV/AIDS medications and when they were trying to be the necessarily "objective" journalists. Schmalz spent two decades - from copy boy to deputy national editor - at the Times where, as the NYT obit reports, he was known for his "finely honed news sense, a devotion to accuracy, a sharp-edged writing style and an innate sense of politics."
Part of the price of his ascent at The Times, Mr. Schmalz long believed, was that he hide his homosexuality from at least some of his superiors. But after his illness became known, and with his sexual orientation no longer a secret, he became an eloquent spokesman for the frustrations of people with AIDS and an outspoken supporter of equal rights for gay people. In public speeches, he frequently apologized for coming late to the cause.
At the same time, he was careful to limit how much his own feelings got into print. The potential conflict in having this "by the book Timesman, no personal involvement allowed," as he put it, covering the disease that was killing him, was one of which he was acutely aware, and he addressed it head on in the article last December.
"Now I see the world through the prism of AIDS," he wrote.
I bring this up because in those days, how the Times went - so went the nation, in terms of setting the standards for journalistic ethics. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts suffered from this split, too - refusing to get an HIV test until after he completed And the Band Played On. Shilts died three months after Schmaltz. I imagine Nagourney was as keenly aware of these public struggles as were other LGBT journalists.
In a May 1999 interview about Out for Good, Nagourney said this about media coverage of LGBT issues:
"The difference in attention paid to these kind of issues by the mainstream media is remarkable . . . Not only was Matthew Shepard on the front page of every major paper in the country, it was generally sympathetic coverage.
There was normative judgment: this is a bad thing that shouldn't have happened. By contrast, in 1973 there was a fire at a gay bar in New Orleans called The Upstairs. Thirty-one or 33 people were killed in it. It was arson. It has never been solved. It got barely a mention any place in the country. A story like that would be a huge story now.
The following year, June 25, 2000, he reported on New York City's Gay Pride march in a story entitled "For Gays, a Party In Search of a Purpose; At 30, Parade Has Gone Mainstream As Movement's Goals Have Drifted"
"Who would have dreamed 30 years ago that this much valuable progress would have been made?" asked Martin Duberman, one of the nation's pre-eminent gay historians. "I'm thrilled."
Yet as a result of that, the gay rights movement seems at times on the brink of being rendered irrelevant by its own success. The fundamental question challenging the movement since its founding members gathered in the weeks after Stonewall, the uprising seen as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, seems as daunting as ever: what, beyond the general notion of seeking what its leaders call equal rights, is it fighting for?"
Nine years later, Nagourney wrote in his Political Memo - "Political Shifts on Gay Rights Lag Behind Culture:"
For 15 minutes in the Oval Office the other day, one of President Obama's top campaign lieutenants, Steve Hildebrand, told the president about the "hurt, anxiety and anger" that he and other gay supporters felt over the slow pace of the White House's engagement with gay issues.
But on Monday, 250 gay leaders are to join Mr. Obama in the East Room to commemorate publicly the 40th anniversary of the birth of the modern gay rights movement: a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. By contrast, the first time gay leaders were invited to the White House, in March 1977, they met a midlevel aide on a Saturday when the press and President Jimmy Carter were nowhere in sight.
The conflicting signals from the White House about its commitment to gay issues reflect a broader paradox: even as cultural acceptance of homosexuality increases across the country, the politics of gay rights remains full of crosscurrents."
Nagourney has written a spate of LGBT-related stories since joining the Times, including one of the April 2005 civil marriage of Arthur J. Finkelstein, whom he described as "a prominent Republican consultant who has directed a series of hard-edged political campaigns to elect conservatives in the United States and Israel over the last 25 years." One associate of Finkelstein's described him as "the architect of Jesse Helms's political rise."
But just because a gay reporter writes for the hallowed New York Times does not always mean they'll get the story right or even get the story.
In 1996, I covered the Republican National Convention in San Diego for the LGBT press. Dole's nomination was a forgone conclusion and only his choice of Jack Kemp as his running mate was a surprise. I don't remember Nagourney - but neither do I remember Richard Berkle, the other "gay mafia" reporter from the New York Times, who reported extensively on Bob Dole returning the $1,000 contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans - a contribution Dole's financial committee had solicited in the run-up to the GOP convention. Remember, this convention was held in the wake of the heady 1994 Republican takeover of Congress orchestrated by Newt Gingrich and his right wing conservative friends. In an October 1995 op-ed, NYT columnist Frank Rich called Dole not only "a flip-flopper but also as a hypocrite....It's hard to imagine how anyone could make a worse case for himself as a potential chief executive of anything, let alone the U.S.A."
Perhaps even more importantly, Rich quoted LCR Executive Director Rich Tafel as saying the check story was "not really about homosexuality" either, but "about the soul of the party." Rich wrote:
Specifically, it's about the role of the religious right in the G.O.P. -- and how its clout in the Presidential primary process is luring even the party's best leaders to reverse their own principles and strike Faustian bargains with Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed for votes.
Sound familiar? But after Dole apologized (he later called it a "mistake" in an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward) for the check incident, few reporters covered the LCR angle again. And - from my perspective - they missed a huge story.
As I reported in the gay press and as LCR's Rich Tafel wrote in his 1999 book Party Crasher, Tafel met with Dole's team to discuss an LCR endorsement and Tafel demanded three things: 1) no gay bashing in the speeches from the podium; 2) no anti-gay signs on the convention floor; 3) and LCR wanted an openly gay person to speak at the convention. LCR also wanted Dole's campaign to publicly request an endorsement.
Dole and Dole's campaign agreed. And four years after Patrick Buchanan stunned the convention with his ugly tirade about the "culture war" (there were two openly gay California delegates, Marty Keller and Frank Ricchiazzi, on the floor that night) - Stephen Fong addressed the convention as part of their one-minute "main street Americans" segment on the opening day of the convention. Fong was not introduced as being openly gay - but he was introduced as the president of the Log Cabin Republicans chapter from San Francisco. Nothing happened. Most of the audience milled around as usual - but Lou Sheldon, head of the antigay Traditional Values Coalition, fled the floor in a red-faced huff.
In his book, Tafel writes that two days later, Dole spokesperson Christina Martin told a reporter that the campaign "welcomed the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans" and Log Cabin endorsed Dole for President. And here's the kicker - RNC chair Haley Barbour let Tafel use the RNC briefing room to announce their endorsement. Tafel continued contact with Dole's campaign - and in the election, Dole got 23% of the gay vote against Clinton.
LCR went on to endorse George W. Bush in 2000 but withheld their endorsement in 2004 after Bush pushed the Federal Marriage Amendment to win over evangelicals.
To me, the story of the behind-the-scenes mano a mano struggle between Rich Tafel and Bob Dole - at a time when gays were vilified, there were no AIDS meds and the Buchanan/Pat Robertson undercurrent was leading inexorably to the more recent point where GOP moderate leaders Christie Todd Whitman and Alan Simpson went on TV and say, "I want my Party back" - is a huge missed opportunity. After all, the gay guy won on that one.
But truthfully - I miss stories all the time. There are just too many stories to cover. So I can't really fault Nagourney for missing this one - even though I'm surprised his curiosity didn't lead to a follow up.
So who is Adam Nagourney - gay-wise? We'll find out - but I hope this gives us a clue.
Don Kilhfner, who co-founded the Gay Liberation Front/LA and the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center in 1969-1971 with Morris Kight, told me that Nagourney "didn't really get" gay liberation. More specifically, Nagourney didn't understand how the very rich, effete power player Sheldon Andelson would mix with the radical, communal-living gay liberationists.
"He didn't understand gay oppression," Kilhefner said. "He saw everything in terms of conventional politics." But, Kilhefner added, he may have changed since those interviews. "He seemed like a decent human being. He seemed to have a probing mind. I wouldn't expect anything but good coming from his move here."
This was originally posted on LGBT POV.
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