The big question in all the hoopla over Dan Savage licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs is, why’s everyone so surprised? Granted, germ warfare puts a new twist on political dirty tricks. But it’s not as though this was the first time Savage misrepresented him-self and broke a law (or two, or three) to demonstrate his moral superiority over those vicious right-wing Republicans.
In case you’ve had the good taste to miss this latest sordid campaign sideshow: Two weeks ago, Savage and Salon, the online magazine that’s supplanted Matt Drudge as the prime outfall for the political sleaze no one else will run, outdid even themselves at inciting a cause c鬨bre. Salon sent Savage to cover the Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa. Sick with “the worst flu I had ever had” and incensed at hearing then-candidate Bauer rail against gay marriage, Savage embarked on a little gut-level terrorism. As he recounts it, he conned his way into Bauer’s campaign office as a volunteer and, when no one was looking, “licked all the doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and coffee cups,” hoping to infect the “gay-bashing” candidate and “lay him flat just before the New Hampshire primary.” Then he falsely registered as an Iowa resident and voted for Alan Keyes—who’s scarcely more sympathetic to gay marriage than Bauer.
You might think this stunt sick, phony, solipsistic, or, above all, stupid: Savage betrayed his own declared strategy of trying to hurt the Republicans by supporting their most extremist losers. He gave vivid shape to the homophobic fear that gays are Plague Johnnies trying to force their vile viruses on everyone else. And he bolstered people’s worst suspicions of “the media” as a bunch of lying, posing double agents—the sort of suspicions that get reporters killed in other countries.
Political campaigns have a long and ignoble history of dirty tricks, though these usually stay at the level of phone pranking and stealing yard signs (I remember Johnson supporters calling at 2am urging a vote for Goldwater). Closer precedents were the smear campaigns waged by Hoover’s FBI against Jean Seberg, Martin Luther King, and other supposed threats to democracy, and the burglaries, character assassinations, and other dick-head tricks undertaken by Nixon’s Plumbers. Doorknobs also figured prominently in the Watergate burglary. Savage just took “smearing” more literally.
And he had already been there, done that, and written about it—six months before Flugate. In the August 19, 1999, Stranger, he recounted how he and his brother went “Feasting and Thieving at the Iowa Straw Poll.” They approached “Sandy, a perky young woman (‘totally fuckable,’ according to my brother)” who worked for Elizabeth Dole, gave fake Iowa addresses, and promised to vote for Dole in return for tickets to the poll. Sandy demanded local ID—at the least, a utility bill addressed to them in Iowa. Savage recounted:
But if all we needed was an envelope addressed to an Iowan to scam some voting tickets, well, that would be easy enough. It was Saturday, and there was all sorts of student housing near the coliseum. Stealing mail is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, so we weren’t going to risk stealing anyone’s mail. We borrowed some. Using one phone bill, I was able to get a ticket at the Buchanan tent and my brother got one at the Quayle tent. After we slipped into the coliseum and voted (my brother voted for Dole, I voted for Forbes—we’re not Republicans; our mission here was to draw votes away from the front runner, George W. Bush), we returned the phone bill to its proper mailbox.
According to US Attorney Kate Pflaumer, if you take someone else’s mail, “you’ve committed a federal crime . . . even if you return it.” Just ask ex-detective Sonny Davis how such things work. “There may be other crimes involved” as well, says Pflaumer: obtaining the ticket by fraud and impersonating the addressee on the letter. Savage also may also have defamed that person and violated his privacy: “Say someone used my name to sign into a neo-Nazi chatroom,” notes Pflaumer. “My reputation would be hurt by that.”
But don’t start sending jailhouse condolences just yet. “Whether anyone would actually do anything about [Savage’s avowed crimes] is another matter,” says Pflaumer. “It probably wouldn’t get charged in our district.” Returning the mail is a “mitigating” (though not an exculpatory) factor. And hey, it’s not as though Savage did anything really hurtful at the Straw Poll—like, say, deliberately infecting an officeful of people.
The Salon strut
Proving the crimes would also be doubtful, since the only evidence would likely be Savage’s published account. And according to The Washington Post, Salon editor David Talbot says Savage told him he “was exaggerating” the latest tale. That sort of dodge is typical of the way Salon simultaneously preens over its courage in running Savage’s dirty-tricks journal, weasels out of responsibility for it, and wallows in the attention it gets. Infecting Bauer “was not what we had in mind,” an editor’s note disclaims, but it then boasts that doing so produced “savage (no pun intended), powerful writing, Swiftian in its desperate, satiric outrage at anti-gay discrimination.” Jeez. What would Swift, whose protagonist Gulliver couldn’t stand the lies and rotten stench of his fellow humans, think of one who slobbers on his adversary’s doorknobs? “We don’t endorse or condone [Savage’s] actions,” Salon huffs, “but we defend his right to write about them.” Sure—anyone has the right to write about anything. But that doesn’t explain why you publish it.
When you wish upon a circus
Who’d have thought that a bill banning circus animals from city facilities would become the most contentious issue on the civic platter? Not City Council member Nick Licata, who signed on as a cosponsor and scheduled Tuesday’s hearing before his Park Committee even though saving elephants from the ring wasn’t his “highest priority.” But two weeks ago he seemed to see it as a chance for mentorship: “It’s a good thing. And it’s a way to help two new members [Heidi Wills and Judy Nicastro, the bill’s main movers] get some legislation forward, and get two members working together who might not otherwise. It will pay off in coalition-building.” If it doesn’t mire the council, as it has the mayor, in circus doo.
More Savage Crimes:
At Large: Typhoid Danny
Gary Bauer isn’t the only one to suffer the ill effects of Dan Savage. by Brian Miller