‘Does it sound campy to say I love gay men?’ asks Meghan McCain, sipping an iced tea at the nouveau-chic Hotel Palomar in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Campy or not, the lovesick McCain has been ubiquitous this year, sallying forth on late-night TV — Larry King Live, The Colbert Report, The Rachel Maddow Show — to scold the Republican establishment for its social conservatism and stump for gay marriage. ‘If two people fall in love, they should have the option to get married just like I can,’ she told Stephen Colbert, pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of a party that believes in keeping government out of people’s private lives — except when those people are gay men and women.
McCain’s timing was propitious, coming in the midst of a struggle within the GOP for direction and fresh momentum that saw Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin arrayed on one side, and, well, who, exactly, on the other? For a while, you might have said John McCain, but he disappointed with his rightward lurch during last year’s presidential campaign. Could his 24-year-old daughter take up that mantle in his stead? It’s telling that her favorite line from her father’s election campaign was also the one that best epitomized his original promise: ‘I’m not President Bush.’ Although she says she has no political aspirations, McCain has an astute understanding of her own generation — one more inclined to identify with her bright, bushy-tailed enthusiasm than with the GOP’s grumpy old men. ‘My generation — we like our celebrities,’ she said on Larry King Live. She was referring to Obama, whose superstar qualities have caught the attention of the world, but she might as well have been talking about herself.
Like her father, Meghan McCain isn’t shy — a fact she’s quick to point out. ‘I think I’m a lot like my dad,’ she says. ‘We’re the same person.’ Most noticeably, both McCains have a preternatural ability to piss off their fellow Republicans, an asset they wear on their sleeves. Within weeks of starting a regular column for The Daily Beast, McCain flexed her newfound muscle by attacking the GOP’s queen of mean, Ann Coulter — ‘watching her is sometimes like watching a train wreck,’ she wrote — and dissing fellow GOP Twitterer Karl Rove, whom she branded a ‘Twitter Creep.’ Easy targets perhaps, but it was a smart way to position herself on the opposite side of the aisle. ‘I’d be flattered to be considered the anti’Ann Coulter, the anti’Rush Limbaugh,’ she says.
But it’s her position on gay marriage that has garnered McCain the most attention. In a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, she said that ‘old-school Republicans’ were ‘scared shitless’ of the future and retreating further and further into an ultraconservative crouch. In late May, a week after the New York State Assembly passed a bill that would legalize gay marriage, she penned an open letter to New York Republicans in the Daily News, which said that GOP support for the bill ‘will leave a legacy that will make us all proud.’
Not surprisingly, McCain the younger has drawn poisonous quips from the party’s moralizers-in-chief, including conservative columnist Laura Ingraham, who dismissed her as a ‘plus-sized model’ (‘Kiss my fat ass,’ McCain retorted on an episode of The View), and Rush Limbaugh, who suggested that she follow Arlen Specter’s example and leave the GOP. More surprising has been the scorn of liberal writers such as Judith Warner of The New York Times, who called her Colbert appearance ‘stupid’ and ‘foolish.’ Much of this has to do with McCain’s slightly girlie, conversational speaking style, which lacks the spit and polish of professional pundits and occasionally strays into gauche phrases and pat formulations. Yet for thousands of ordinary viewers, schooled in the language of Facebook and Twitter, that’s what makes her fresh and sympathetic. She has grown up in their world, and when she talks about her love of the Scissor Sisters and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or asks readers of her blog to write in with suggestions for her next tattoo (‘So far McCain in gothic letters on the back of my neck is winning my unofficial survey’), she is talking their language. It turns out those old-school Republicans are not only scared shitless of the future; they’re scared shitless of her. Or, as media writer Michael Wolff put it, Meghan McCain ‘was a mild diversion during the presidential campaign….But empowered, she’s turned into someone who actually wants a seat at the table, apparently unaware of the incongruity and awkwardness of a 24-year-old girl among the guys with their pants pulled up high.’
Some critics have argued that McCain’s support for gay rights amounts to little more than attention-seeking cynicism, that while it’s nice to have the daughter of the former Republican presidential candidate’s vocal support, it would’ve been more helpful if she’d made her views known on the campaign trail. McCain — a fan of Lucky Cheng’s drag club in New York City where she gets her Lady Bunny fix — says that during the campaign no reporter bothered to ask for her views on the matter. Had they, she would have told the truth and not worried about further upsetting conservatives already wary of her father’s maverick reputation. ‘I never would have lied,’ she says.
Being free of a presidential campaign’s constraints has liberated McCain to speak her mind, but the true impetus for her current gay rights activism was the passage of Proposition 8 in California. On election night last November, McCain was understandably consumed with the results of the presidential race and, like many, ‘assumed that Prop 8 wouldn’t pass.’ The next morning, however, she woke up in an already sour mood made worse by her BGF (best gay friend) Josh ‘telling me that on top of everything else, Prop 8 passed.’ Like many others, McCain was swept up in a collective sense of grievance, quickly concluding that making the GOP more gay-friendly would be foremost among her priorities. (For the record, Meghan isn’t the only member of the McCain clan to support gay marriage. ‘My mom was always for gay marriage, but I think me being so vocal about it has made her want to be more vocal about it,’ she says. ‘She texted me: ‘Gay marriage passed in Maine!!’ ‘)
But what so recently seemed antithetical to mainstream Republicanism has lately gained support from unlikely supporters, including former vice president Dick Cheney, who recently expressed support for gay marriage, and Theodore Olson, a lawyer who represented George W. Bush during the contested election of 2000 and who is now working to overturn Prop 8. And John McCain’s former campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, told the Log Cabin Republicans that same-sex marriage was consistent with sound conservative principles. As for her father, McCain says, ‘He’s 73 and of a different generation. I hope someday he will come around.’ But she also credits her own progressive position to her upbringing, recalling a precocious fourth-grade classmate who told her he was gay.
When McCain asked her mother what ‘gay’ meant, she replied ‘That’s how God made him, and we love everyone.’
Yet even as the balance begins to shift, the old guard is still yapping in the foreground. Shortly before McCain sat for this interview, Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, gave an interview to Christianity Today in which he complained about ‘queers’ and declared, ‘I wouldn’t have them anywhere near my children.’ Unprompted, McCain rails against the man her father’s presidential campaign touted as an American everyman and made a showpiece in the weeks before the election. ‘Joe the Plumber — you can quote me — is a dumbass. He should stick to plumbing.’
Given her youth, her lack of political experience, and that she’s the daughter of the Republican politician most reviled by his fellow Republicans, it’s doubtful, at least for the time being, that McCain has the ability to sway conservatives on any issue, never mind gay equality. As they did with her father, many prominent conservatives have called her conservative bona fides into question, pointing out that she only recently registered as a Republican, voted for John Kerry in 2004, and spends more time attacking Republicans than she does Democrats. And despite the battle scars she’s already earned, McCain recognizes that she has yet to win over gays. ‘A lot of people in the gay community are skeptical of me as a Republican,’ she says, mindful of her mission to promote the idea that being Republican and supporting gay marriage are not mutually exclusive.
‘Homophobia is the last socially accepted prejudice,’ McCain says, repeating it for emphasis. So it’s only natural that she also views the fight for gay equality as ‘my generation’s civil rights movement.’ At a time when California can constitutionally ban gay marriage and the current presidential administration — having vowed so much — has yet to fulfill its promises, it’s hard not to be won over by this bubbly optimist. ‘In general, I don’t get a good response from the conservative movement,’ she admits, unfazed. ‘But there are a lot of people who have said, ‘I’m Republican and I’m pro’gay marriage. Thank you for showing that you don’t have to be anti’gay marriage to be a Republican.’ ‘