Speaking truth to power: although the democratic forum on LGBT issues in August was about the presidential candidates, it was panelist Jonathan Capehart, the gay Washington Post editorial writer, who arguably emerged as the winner. Andrew Noyes finds out what makes this journalist tick.
Jonathan Capehart was in Italy when he heard that friends had recommended him as a panelist for a groundbreaking forum in which presidential aspirants would discuss LGBT issues. The Washington Post editorial writer was perfect for the job: intelligent, authoritative, and attractive, he won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize as part of the New York Daily News editorial board, and he has also been a Bloomberg News columnist, an adviser to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.
At the first televised forum of its kind, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and LGBT cable channel Logo, Capehart sat alongside HRC president Joe Solmonese, musician Melissa Etheridge, and the forum's moderator, political columnist Margaret Carlson. Yet he wowed the crowd with pointed, sometimes humorous questions to the White House hopefuls. Now The Advocate turns the tables by asking him the questions.
The Advocate: You seemed shocked when I told you that we thought you were the breakout star of the event. Why was that?
Capehart: Because I still see myself as that geeky little kid from New Jersey who had a giant head and enormous glasses to match.
How did it make you feel to be part of such a monumental event in LGBT politics?
It was a great honor to even be asked. They could have gone to any number of out gay journalists to sit on that sofa. But I'll let you in on a little secret: I didn't think it was that big a deal--until I watched the replay on television. How extraordinary to have a possible president of the United States not be afraid to talk about LGBT issues on live TV. Too bad the Republicans didn't avail themselves of the same opportunity.
Six Democrats were auditioning for the job of commander in chief, and you got to grill them. What was your favorite question, and which candidate impressed you the most?
My favorite question had to be the one to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, asking whether there was anything the gay community wanted that he opposed. He was uncharacteristically speechless. What's really funny is that when we did a little rehearsal--you know, to get a feel for the flow of things--I asked that question of our Kucinich stand-in. She was equally speechless.
What was going through your head when New Mexico governor Bill Richardson responded to a question asked by Etheridge by saying that he thought homosexuality is a choice?
"Holy shift He just made news!"
Andrew Sullivan argued that you have not been outspoken enough as a supporter of gay marriage. He said you defended the leading candidates' "Democratic cowardice" on that issue. What say you?
I'll tell you what I told Andrew: What troubles me is the unwillingness to accept the notion that there's room for both of our approaches in the fight for equality. Just because I'm not shouting doesn't mean I'm not carrying the same message. The movement needs both approaches.
Do you think the 2008 election will be a watershed campaign cycle for LGBT issues?
It could be. It depends on whether gay marriage or some other gay issue is trotted out as "Wedge Issue 2008." There are so many urgent issues facing the country--the war, the economy, health care--that also impact gays and lesbians, I don't think the electorate will be distracted by politicians trying to appeal to their baser instincts. My hope is that this will be a watershed campaign cycle for GLBT issues because they were a part of the American conversation, not separate from it.
Tell me a bit about the day in the life of Jonathan Capehart. What's your daily routine? Where do you find inspiration for your editorials?
The day starts at 6 A.M., when I groggily shuffle to my door and pick up The Washington Post and New York Times. Over a bowl of oatmeal with honey, I read stories and think about what would make a good editorial. At the office I get copies of The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and the New York Post. The editorial board meets three times a week. We all spend a lot of time talking to and meeting with sources and figuring out what is worthy of comment and what that comment should be.
You're a longtime member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. What does that organization mean to you?
NLGJA means everything to me. It's hard for me to put into words just how instrumental it has been in my personal and professional growth. Charlie Kaiser, Pam Strother, and Mike Frederickson--all former leaders of NLGJA--were my biggest champions, and I will always be grateful to them for that.
You have an interesting experience in journalism, politics, and public relations. How has that combination hurt or helped you as you've advanced in your career?
My stints in politics and PR have only helped make me a better journalist. I have a clearer understanding of how things work and why things happen. That kind of perspective is invaluable and serves to inform my thinking and writing.
How much have you written about gay issues in your career?
I've written lots, much to the consternation of many. I think my editorials for the New York Daily News decrying the second wave of HIV infections among gay men were the most meaningful. I took a lot of lumps because of them. They even got me branded a neocon. But it was worth it every time someone quietly came up to me to say thanks for what I was doing.
Is there an underlying philosophy to your work?
I don't know if it is a philosophy as much as it is a sense of duty. Many people are afraid to say what they believe for fear of being criticized. I'm more than willing to poke my head above the foxhole and take bullets from the ideologues, on the left or the right, if it means the views of the vast political middle get a hearing.
Noyes is a senior writer with the National Journal Group.
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|Title Annotation:||GREAT AMERICAN LIVES|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Sep 25, 2007|
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