It's time to wave the bloody flag

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 1:32 a.m.
The more things change the more they stay the same.
As a young reporter, in the late 1970s, I went to Tallahassee to cover state government for several Florida newspapers.
And I learned the first operating principle of politics from Alan Trask, Republican of Lakeland.
Trask was every inch the state senator. He had a silver mane, a smooth drawl and an evangelical style. He favored powder blue suits.
And he had a cause. Whatever else he may have been known for, Trask's main mission in Tallahassee seemed to be to route the homosexuals from state universities.
He had a bill to prohibit universities from spending money or otherwise supporting gay student unions and the like. God-fearing taxpayers ought not to have to foot the bill so deviants could work their will on impressionable young college students, yada, yada, yada.
Nothing personal, you understand.
And that was the odd thing about Alan Trask. In my conversations with him, Trask always struck me as a congenial fellow who didn't have a mean bone in his body. No demagogue he.
The other thing I remember was the attitude of so many of his colleagues. Privately, many would admit to being uneasy, even embarrassed, by Trask's bill. But few were willing to stand up and say so in committee or on the floor.
Trask eventually had to leave the Senate after his business dealings got him into ethical difficulties. And with his departure, the cleanse the campus of the gay menace campaign ran out of steam.
But one thing I'll give to Alan Trask. He well and truly understood the first operating principle of politics.
It's about dividing people, not uniting them.
It's about waving the bloody flag. It's about reaching out to the lowest common denominator. It's about firming up your base by demonizing "those" people.
The gays, the liberals, the foreigners, the feminists, the secular humanists. Whatever group happens to be the flavor of the month.
The more things change the more they stay the same.
Gays are a perennial political punching bag - just as easy to demonize today as they were in Alan Trask's salad days.
And so it should surprise no one to learn that the biggest financial backer of Florida4Marriage - the initiative promoting a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriages - is the Florida Republican Party.
The St. Petersburg Times reported recently that the state GOP gave $150,000 of the $193,000 total raised by the campaign.
"It certainly was helpful," John Stemberger, Florida4Marriage chair told the Times. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the details, but they came to us and gave us the money."
He doesn't have to "discuss the details," of course. It's the same old story.
Wave the bloody flag. Motivate your base. Demonize "those people."
Nothing personal, you understand. Just politics.
Remember the "English only" amendment? Back in the day, Florida politicians rallied around that little piece of anti-immigrant mischief.
What was that bumper sticker again? Oh yeah: "Will the last American to leave South Florida please take down the flag?"
Nothing personal you understand. Especially now that so many Cuban-Americans have gotten elected to public office. It's not fashionable to bash immigrants anymore.
The politics of division has a long and dishonorable history in Florida.
In 1917, a nobody named Sidney J. Catts made it to the governor's mansion by demonizing "Papists," (We call them Catholics now). Half a century later, Fuller Warren was running for governor on the promise that "no negroes will be admitted to white schools."
And of course Charley Johns made much political hay out of his infamous campaign to purge Florida's universities of both gays and reds.
Gays are always fair game. Charlie Jones knew it. Alan Trask knew it. The Republican Party knows it.
What's that you say? That Florida law already bans gay marriage? That gays aren't exactly lining up outside courthouse doors across Florida demanding their right to marry?
So what? It's an election year. Time to wave the bloody flag. It's right there in the "How to Get Elected" playbook.
Oh, sure, it's easy enough for Gov. Jeb Bush, the titular head of the Florida Republican Party, to play the statesman on this one.
"Gay marriages are banned in our state," he told the Times. "And if I could be convinced there are looming court cases that will undermine that statute or the (federal) law . . . then I would consider being supportive of it. But I have not been convinced of it."
Of course, he's not running for anything this year.
So is this purge really necessary? With all of the things we have to talk about in Florida - Medicaid, education, runaway growth, pick your issue - do we really have to worry about the very foundation of civil society washing away under a relentless "gay tide?"
Don't we have enough real problems without dragging out that tired old punching bag? "Those" people?
Don't be silly.
There is the bloody flag to wave. There is the base to solidify. What's the point of even having demons if you don't drag them out of the closet when you really need them - in an election year.
Shameful, yes.
But divide and conquer works equally well in politics as in warfare.
Anyway, the $150,000 the state GOP kicked into the anti-gay marriage campaign was small change compared to, say, the $1.5 million that insurance and health care lobbyists gave to the party while the GOP-controlled Legislature was busy "reforming" Medicaid (and giving managed care companies a huge, guaranteed customer base).
So what did lobbyists get for their money? And how will it affect Floridians who depend on Medicaid?
What difference does it make?
We've got more important business to attend to this election year.
Like saving Florida from the threat of gay marriage.

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