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Poet Mary Karr: 'Sinners Welcome'

Syracuse English professor Mary Karr is the author of two bestselling memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry. She has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and essays. Her new book of poems is Sinners Welcome.

18:38

Other segments from the episode on June 13, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 13, 2006: Interview with Mary Cheney; Interview with Mary Karr.

Transcript

DATE June 13, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Mary Cheney discusses politics, her father Vice
President Dick Cheney and what it's like to be gay and campaigning
for the Bush-Cheney ticket
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mary Cheney, has written a new memoir called "Now It's My Turn"
about her experiences working on her father's vice-presidential campaigns in
2000 and 2004. In the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, she was director of
vice-presidential operations. One of the questions she addresses in her book
is, as a lesbian in a long-term relationship, how does she reconcile working
on the 2004 campaign when President Bush advocated a constitutional amendment
to ban gay marriage? Cheney is now chief of staff for Ted Leonsis, the vice
chairman of AOL. Before working on her father's campaigns, she'd worked for
Coors Brewery as a marketing liaison doing outreach to the gay community which
had tried to boycott the company.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Ms. MARY CHENEY (Author, "Now It's My Turn"): You know, one thing that
happens to you when you're in the public eye is frequently the media develops
this caricature of you. In my dad's case, you know, he's the Darth Vader
behind the Bush presidency. You know, this idea he's sort of malevolent
force. And as his daughter of 37 years, I can honestly vouch for the fact
that it's not true. And I really wanted to present an accurate portrayal of
my dad so that the rest of the world know the man that I love so much.

GROSS: Does it surprise you that some people think of him as being the Darth
Vader-type?

Ms. CHENEY: Probably not as much as you think it would. One of the things I
do love about my dad is--and admire about him is he is someone who, you know,
he wakes up every morning worried about, you know, `What am I going to do
today to keep this country safe? What am I going to do to help the president
move his agenda forward?' He's really focused on doing what's right, doing
what he knows is in the best interest of the country. And unlike a lot of
politicians, especially in Washington, he doesn't spend so much time worrying
about his publicity polls or his popularity. And so he's not somebody who's
going to waste much time fighting back against this, you know, Darth Vader
image.

GROSS: You say in your book that you considered leaving your father's
campaign after the president supported an amendment to ban gay marriage in his
January 2004 State of the Union address. Was it a surprise that the president
supported an amendment to ban gay marriage?

Ms. CHENEY: It wasn't in that I knew that it was coming. I think, when you
read the book, I talk about really having the internal debate with myself and
talked to my family about it before the president actually endorsed it. You
know, he'd come darn close to it in the State of the Union when he talked
about defending marriage. And what was a surprise for me was that, I think it
was a surprise for most people, was that gay marriage really did become an
issue in 2004. When I first signed on the campaign in June of 2003, you know,
it was before the Lawrence decision in the Supreme Court, it was before the
Massachusetts state Supreme Court handed down their decision. It was not an
issue that was front and center in a lot of people's radar screens.

GROSS: So why did you decide to stay with the campaign?

Ms. CHENEY: First and foremost my dad. I believed so strongly in my dad as
a person, as a father, as a leader, that I wanted to stay and support him.
And I'd made a commitment to support him. Obviously I hadn't known, you know,
back in early 2003 that President Bush was going to endorse the federal
marriage amendment, whether there would be a federal marriage amendment, but
that didn't change the fact that I'd made a commitment. And the other reason
is, quite frankly, we live in a world where there are terrorists, where there
are people and countries that support them who will do whatever they can to
hurt this country and to hurt this nation. And given that we live in that
world, it is of dire importance that we have leaders, that we have a
president, a commander in chief, who is forceful, who does understand the
importance of protecting the country, who's going to do the best job of
keeping this country safe. And, you know, quite frankly in 2004, there was no
question it was George Bush. And, you know, I personally didn't feel like I
had the luxury of being a single issue voter on the issue of same-sex marriage
given the world that we live in.

GROSS: Why do you oppose an amendment to ban gay marriage?

Ms. CHENEY: I could, quite frankly, if I can give you the thumbnail sketch
which is it's wrong to write discrimination into the Constitution, but
because, you know, I think if you look at our Constitution, it's been amended
at least 17 times since the Bill of Rights. And if you look at those
amendments, by and large, they are about expanding freedom, they are about
increasing inclusion and empowerment, you know, involving more people in our
society. Whether it's the, you know, abolition of slavery or suffrage for
women, or, you know, the direct election of senators or lowering the voting
age, that is the story of our Constitution and quite frankly the story of our
country. Something like the federal marriage amendment, you know, flies in
the face of that. It is explicitly exclusionary. You know, it is saying
that, you know, this group of people are not entitled to the same rights as
everyone else.

GROSS: Now I know that your mother Lynne Cheney has said that she doesn't
support the federal amendment to ban gay marriage because she thinks it's a
state issue. And your father had said that he thought it was a state issue
during one of the debates. But did he change his mind in consequence of that
and support a constitutional amendment?

Ms. CHENEY: No. He's actually always been very clear. There's a chapter in
my book titled Freedom Means Freedom For Everyone that's about the federal
marriage amendment, and the line comes from my dad's debate with Joe Lieberman
when Bernie Shaw, the debate moderator, asked him about the issue of, you
know, recognizing relationships. My dad's always been very clear that he does
not support the federal marriage amendment.

GROSS: But, you know, both of your parents have said that they think it's a
state issue, not a federal issue. And there're already some states that have
passed laws banning gay marriage and other states that are considering it.
And now that it looks like there won't be a federal amendment in the immediate
future to ban gay marriage, more states might consider banning it on a state
level. I'd love to hear if you know what your parents think of banning it on
a state level because they've said it's a state issue, not a federal issue.
But they've never actually taken a stand to my knowledge about where they
stand on gay marriage.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, it is a state issue, and it's one of the responsibilities
that's always been given to states to decide. States set their own laws
regarding marriage. You know, what I can tell you is that I can only speak
for myself, I'm not really here to represent somebody else's views, and that
my parents publicly have both stated their opposition to the federal marriage
amendment.

GROSS: But they've never said what they think of gay marriage. Are you not
willing to say on their behalf? They don't think...

Ms. CHENEY: I've made a point in life of only representing my own point of
view.

GROSS: What is your point of view on that?

Ms. CHENEY: My own point of view is I think this is an issue that is very
important for our country to debate. Personally, I would prefer it be an
issue that is handled through the legislative branch, not by the courts. But
regardless of how it's handled, I ultimately believe, you know, we will see
same-sex marriage, whether it's called marriage or called civil unions. I
believe that that is not that far off.

GROSS: But you haven't said whether you support it or not yet.

Ms. CHENEY: I do. I'm sorry. I completely support it. How's that?

GROSS: OK. That's good. Thank you for making that clear.

Ms. CHENEY: All right.

GROSS: My guest is Mary Cheney, and she's written a new memoir called "Now
It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life." And it's about her
work in her father's vice-presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004.

The Bush-Cheney administration was twice elected with support of the religious
right, and their campaign emphasized values. And for many leaders on the
religious right, at the top of the list of values was banning gay marriage and
talking about homosexuality as something that was very threatening to society.
Were you comfortable knowing that even though your father may have disagreed
with that emphasis that he was still in alliance with a group of leaders who
fervently believe that your way of life threatens America?

Ms. CHENEY: One thing that I like about the Republican Party is we are a
varied bunch of people. There are people who I, you know, passionately
disagree with regarding the issue of same-sex marriage or regarding issue of,
you know, gay rights. But I also question the assessment that this was an
election, especially in 2004, that this was an election about gay rights.
Matthew Dowd, who was the strategist on the Bush-Cheney campaign, gave an
interview in the last few weeks in which he talked about the fact that, you
know, that's sort of one of the urban legends of the 2004 campaign. That, you
know, the federal marriage amendment and the president's support of it really
drove home support with evangelical voters, with opponents of same-sex
marriage. But if you really go look at voter turnout, records in states that
had gay marriage and issues on the ballots and states that didn't, it's
actually identical. That when push came to shove, this really wasn't an
election that was driven by this issue, that what it really came down to was
it was a national election by and large about national security issues.

GROSS: But I think it's fair to say that the Bush-Cheney ticket tried to
portray the election as being about values and certainly their supporters on
the religious right did and the Republican platform had planks opposing gay
marriage and gay adoption. So I guess what I'm wondering is if that alliance
between your father and President Bush and the religious right, knowing that
the religious right number one issue at the time was opposing gay marriage, if
that made you uncomfortable because in the world of politics what it means is
that that relation empowers the group that--you know, the religious right
which opposed gay marriage, the alliance empowered them, and it also made the
Bush administration, you'd argue, more beholden to the people who helped put
them in office, the religious right. So, you know, it kind of empowered that
idea of homosexual marriage as a threat to our society, as a threat to family.

Ms. CHENEY: I would strongly object to the notion that the Bush-Cheney
administration is beholden to any particular group. They have been, the
president in particularly, I mean, whom I disagree with on this issue, have
always been governing from the point of view of what is best for this country.
I would hate to think of a leader who was going to say, `I'm going to govern
based upon what is best or what is in the interest of the religious right or
the far left.' Anyone who is going to try and govern based upon a splinter of
our society, you are president of everyone. You're not president of, you
know, 5 percent of the population.

GROSS: You said you wanted to stand up for what you believed in. One of the
things you believe in is that, you know, homosexuality is an OK part of normal
live and that homosexuals should be able to have relationships under law like
everybody else. But it's not something that--that's not a belief you stood up
for during the campaign. Did you feel like it would have been inappropriate
or bad for your father's campaign to do that? Why were you silent about that
issue which you believe in?

Ms. CHENEY: You know, one of the things that I really respect about George
Bush and one of the things that really re-emphasized to me why I stayed on the
campaign and why he was the right person to be leading us is that he let me
know that if I--the day that he endorsed the federal marriage amendment, the
day he went out in front of the press corps and did that, he let it be known
to me that he would understand if I wanted to put out my own statement talking
about how much I disagreed with him. And I thought about it. I really did.
But, ultimately, I decided against it.

GROSS: Why?

Ms. CHENEY: Because, quite frankly, I was a staffer on the campaign. I was
director of vice-presidential operations, and I think for my own perspective,
it is inappropriate for staffers to be issuing their own public policy
statements. I was--of course, I would have been free to quit the campaign and
make whatever statement I wanted to make, but because I, you know, believed in
these candidates, because I believed in this ticket, you know, I wanted to
work on that campaign. And I didn't want to set the precedent of, you know,
staffers expressing or representing their own opinion rather than the opinion
of the candidate that they were working for.

GROSS: My guest is Mary Cheney. Her new memoir is called "Now It's My Turn."
We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Cheney, and she has a new
memoir called "Now It's My Turn."

There were times when you were noticeably absent, like after your father spoke
at the Republican Convention in 2004 and the whole family, including your
sister and her husband and their children were onstage, but you and your
partner were absent. Did that have anything to do with--why were you absent?

Ms. CHENEY: It actually has more to do with the fact that Heather, my
partner, is an incredibly private person. And so she and I talked about it
before we went to the convention in New York. My folks had, you know, told us
whatever we wanted to do was fine with them. They'd love us to be onstage,
but they also understood if we didn't want to go up there. And pretty much
just because Heather was so uncomfortable with it--I mean, honestly, I love
her, but if you look at the footage of her, of us, on stage at the victory
party, you know, she's uncomfortable. She did it because, you know, she loves
me and wanted to support me. I really wanted to go out there. But she really
didn't want to go onstage. And I certainly didn't want to push her. So we
watched, and then we went and celebrated with my parents downstairs.

GROSS: A lot of people assumed that you weren't there because on a ticket
that had the support of so many people who were anti-gay, it might have seemed
a little odd to have the gay daughter and her partner onstage.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, the way Heather and I looked at it is--especially because
it was just a few days after, you know, Alan Keys had called me a selfish
hedonist...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHENEY: ...Heather and I looked at it as, you know, whatever we do, it's
going to make news, and people are going to talk about it and speculate about
it. So, you know, let's just do what we want to do. And that's not go
onstage.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing your reaction, you know, at the Senate
debate on the amendment to ban gay marriage that the most quoted, now
infamous, remark is from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma who stood in front
of a large portrait of his extended family and said, "As you see here, and I
think this is maybe the most important prop we'll have during the entire
debate, my wife and I have been married 47 years. We have 20 kids and
grandkids, and I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our
family, we've never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship."
What was your reaction when you heard that?

Ms. CHENEY: I'm really glad Senator Inhofe's not my dad.

GROSS: Do you think that he's saying it in a way that your family and every
family that has a homosexual in it should be embarrassed? You know?

Ms. CHENEY: I try not to read too much into people's comments. From my own
perspective, it was not an embarrassing comment to me. You know, Senator
Inhofe has an issue with my family, that, you know, that's Senator Inhofe's
issue as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: Do you think it's cynical or accurate to think that the gay marriage
amendment comes up at times when an election is approaching, you know, when
conservatives are trying to rally their base?

Ms. CHENEY: All I can really say about that is I would certainly hope that
people who are in position of power, people who are leaders of the Senate,
people who are senators, that I would hope no public official would ever try
to--would ever start debating and discussing something as important as
amending the Constitution strictly for political gain.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of the things President Bush said, and this was in
his State of the Union address in January 2004, that for the good of families,
children and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the
institution of marriage. Did you ever at all feel the inclination to speak up
there and say, you know, `Is it good for your family to ban gay marriage?' I
mean, for your family, it would be good to have that.

Ms. CHENEY: For me, you also have to understand that, you know, from my
perspective, Heather and I are married. We're--you know, we've been together
now for almost 14 years. We, you know, own several houses together. We are
currently renovating another house together. We have, you know, built a life
together. And quite frankly, I hope to spend the rest of my life with her.
From my perspective, I'm just waiting for state and federal law to catch up
with where we are. I'm not really sure that I'm something that families need
to be protected from.

GROSS: One of the things you write about in the book is about how you hated
the way that John Kerry responded to Bob Schieffer's question at one of the
debates about whether homosexuality was a choice. And what Kerry said was,
`We're all God's children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick
Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who
she was born as.' Now you write in the book that you really hated his answer,
you felt targeted by his remark. Your mother said, `This is not a good man.
What a cheap and tawdry political trick!' What so upset you about his
response?

Ms. CHENEY: A couple of things. I think what made it so jarring was that he
got a question he wasn't expecting, you know, in debate prep. I sat in on all
my dad's debate prep sessions. We did lots of questions about gay marriage.
We would do questions about gay civil rights. But we never asked `Is
homosexuality a choice?' That was never one of the questions we talked about
in debate prep. And my hunch would be it was one that the Kerry campaign
didn't anticipate either. Because I think what happened is John Kerry had
either programmed himself or been programmed by his handlers that, you know,
the goal on any question he got on gay issues was vice president and lesbian.
`Get those words in your answer.' It was just so, you know, ham-handed, was
probably the best way to put it. And quite honestly, I really don't think
John Kerry ought to be speaking on my behalf. There are an awful lot of gay
people on his side of the aisle that he could speak on behalf of.

GROSS: Mary Cheney. Her new memoir is called "Now It's My Turn." She'll be
back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Mary Karr reads from her new collection of poems, "Sinners
Welcome," and talks about her conversion to Catholicism after having been an
agnostic. Also we continue our interview with Mary Cheney about working on
her father's vice-presidential campaign.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross back with Mary Cheney. She's written a memoir called "Now
It's My Turn" about working on her father's vice-presidential campaigns in
2000 and 2004. When we left off, we were discussing why she was offended by
one of John Kerry's responses during the 2004 presidential debate.

You were also very unhappy with something that John Edwards said in a debate
with your father in 2004. This was in response to a question Gwen Ifill asked
about same-sex marriage. And after your father said that freedom means
freedom for everyone and individual states should decide, you know, how to
regulate gay marriage, there shouldn't be a federal amendment, Edwards said,
`I think that the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think
they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact
that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the
fact that they embrace her.' Now that comment made you very angry. Tell us
what you objected to about it.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I did give John Edwards credit for being a heck of a lot
smoother than his running mate was. But he is a, you know, recovering trial
lawyer, so I suppose that's understandable. Actually, honestly, the exact
same thing that was upsetting when John Kerry did it, was that, you know, it
was pretty obvious political attempt to, you know, focus attention on the fact
that the vice president has a lesbian daughter and I--basically trying to
score a few cheap political points. That was actually what made me so upset.

GROSS: You write that when your father told you that he was considering
running for vice president, he said that he was concerned that people would
target you and your sexual orientation in an attempt to attack him. In
reading that, I wasn't sure whether he was concerned that people on the right
would use your sexual orientation in an attempt to attack him or people on the
left, or both.

Ms. CHENEY: I don't remember ever having a conversation with him about, you
know, the attacks are going to come from the left or the right. I think he
was just worried about primarily that he wanted to make sure that I understood
that there would be a lot of media attention paid to it, which obviously there
was. And, you know, that people--I mean, honestly, John Kerry and John
Edwards in 2004 were really good examples of people who would try and use the
fact that my dad had a gay daughter to score some political points.

GROSS: Well, you know, I think what a lot of people would say was what Kerry
and Edwards were trying to do there was to say, `Is this a little hypocritical
to have a gay daughter, to support a gay daughter, and yet be part of a ticket
that many people saw as demonizing homosexuality?'

Ms. CHENEY: Well, I certainly wouldn't say that our ticket demonized
homosexuality. My dad has always made it very clear. My dad doesn't even
support the federal marriage amendment, for starters. And the president, even
though I disagree with him and even though I think he's wrong on these issues,
has always in every statement I've ever seen, been very clear about saying
that, you know, `Look, this is what I think we need to do on this issue.
However, we need to remember that it's important to treat everyone with
respect and dignity.'

GROSS: Well, I mean, just to be clear, there was a very, very strong, you
know, values were emphasized so much and values, at the top of that list of
values for the religious right which was crucial to the Bush-Cheney ticket, at
the top of their list was, you know, the amendment to ban gay marriage.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, see. I'm going to disagree with you there, Terry. You
know, when you talk about values, I think the values that were emphasized
during the 2004 election were values of things like leadership and honestly.
I mean, those were the values that were really central to the 2004 campaign.

GROSS: You worked for several years, I think, for Coors Brewery as their
marketing liaison to the gay community. I think they were trying to, like,
repair their image after a boycott or a threatened boycott against them.
Exactly what was the problem that you were hired to repair?

Ms. CHENEY: Well, actually I had several jobs at Coors, dealing primarily
around public relations issues, handling issues like alcohol abuse, underage
drinking, environmental issues, clean water, that kind of stuff. And Coors
came to me and asked me to--actually I was getting ready to leave for business
school--they came to me and asked me to stay on and do gay marketing, which,
quite frankly, it sounded like fun because it was a new field. It was
something that, you know, maybe three Fortune 500 companies were actually
doing at that point in time. And so I took it on as a challenge for a couple
of years, two years, maybe.

GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing responses. Some people saw it as
hypocritical that you took such affront when Kerry and Edwards mentioned in
the debates that you were gay, but at the same time you had a job earlier, you
know, that was about marketing to the gay community. Do you see that as
contradictory or does that seem perfectly consistent to you?

Ms. CHENEY: I don't understand how it would be contradictory. You know, I
had a job at Coors, one of which was, you know, to help the company sell and
market their products to gay and lesbian consumers. You know, I had a job on
the Bush-Cheney campaign, which was to run vice-presidential operations. And,
you know, I don't recall ever having a job to be a poster child for John Kerry
or John Edwards.

GROSS: And you felt that that's how you were being used, as a poster child?
In what sense?

Ms. CHENEY: I was being used as a way for them to try and score some
political points.

GROSS: You said earlier that one of the reasons why you did not want to leave
the campaign in 2004 after the president came out against--after the president
came out in favor of a federal amendment--constitutional amendment to ban gay
marriage was because you really believed that the Bush-Cheney ticket was the
best ticket for the safety of America. Have you retained your confidence in
the war in Iraq? Do you think that the war was the right thing to do and that
America is safer as a result of it?

Ms. CHENEY: I have no doubt about that. I think--and unfortunately, I think
the media give a very unfair view of what's been going on in Iraq. I mean,
just think about this for a minute. The Iraqis have had three national
elections in the last three years. In every single election, more people have
come out and voted and participated than in previous elections. Prime
Minister Maliki, I got the pronunciation right, just named his cabinet, his
full cabinet, including the secretary of the interior and the secretary of the
military. You know, those are huge accomplishments. And on top of everything
else, Zarqawi was killed last week. And while he is not the be-all, end-all
of the insurgency in Iraq, it is a severe blow to the insurgents in Iraq. And
I think we are doing exactly the right thing there.

GROSS: Mary Cheney, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. CHENEY: Well, sure. Well, thank you for having me on.

GROSS: Mary Cheney's new memoir is called "Now It's My Turn."

Coming up, Mary Karr reads from her new memoir, "Sinners Welcome." It's
actually a book of poetry. Sorry. It's a book of poetry called "Sinners
Welcome." And she'll talk about her conversion from agnostic to Catholic.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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