For months now, a handful of influential right-wing evangelical groups and elected officials have been complaining loudly that the venerable Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has abandoned its support of family values because the organizers have deemed to let a gay conservative group, GOProud, participate in the event. CPAC, which begins Thursday in DC, is a testing ground for GOP presidential aspirants and a showcase for conservative politicians. On hand this week for the event will be such luminaries as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Ann Coulter, and a host of others. But on Monday, evangelical groups including the Heritage Foundation, the American Family Association, and the Family Research Council, among others, took out a full-page ad in the Washington Times headlined, “What would Ronald Reagan think?” bashing CPAC organizers for allowing gay conservatives a seat at the table. (Reagan spoke at CPAC in 1977.)
But while the evangelical groups have been up in arms about GOProud’s involvement, promising to boycott, an unusual supporter has emerged for CPAC’s decision to keep its tent big: Sarah Palin. On Sunday night, Palin appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network, in an interview with David Brody, who asked Palin about the CPAC controversy, noting that politicos like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Huckabee, and others were boycotting the event because of GOProud’s presence. Palin is not attending CPAC either, but she insisted that her absence was because of scheduling issues and had nothing to do with how she felt about GOProud. In fact, she said, including different people who you may not agree with was not much different from appearing on a panel discussion with a bunch of liberals. Palin insisted that opposing viewpoints were esential for a “healthy debate, which is needed in order for people to gather information and make up their own minds about issues. I look at participation in an event like CPAC or any other event, along, or kind of in that same vein as the more information that people have the better.”
Palin is in good company. Despite the question in the full-page Washington Times ad suggesting that Reagan, who would have been 100 this month, might frown on the inclusion of gays at CPAC, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Gipper would have been firmly in Palin’s camp. Reagan, having worked in Hollywood before getting into politics, had a lot of gays in his administration and close friends who were gay (Rock Hudson!). Not only that, however, but the year after he addressed CPAC, he was instrumental in helping defeat a ballot initiative in California that would have banned gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them from teaching in the state’s public schools. A week before the vote on the initiative, Reagan wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner arguing, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” It’s hard to imagine that a politician brave enough to write such a statement in 1978, even as he was preparing to run for president, would have been especially cowed at the thought of bumping up against a few gay Republicans at CPAC. Jim DeMint should take note.