THE screen's first official gay bar," as it was labeled by the film historian Vito Russo, appeared in the 1962 political potboiler "Advise and Consent." Its most prominent visitor was a conservative United States senator.
As sheer coincidence would have it, Otto Preminger's adaptation of Allen Drury's best seller about a brutal confirmation fight was released on a sparkling new DVD last week just as the John Bolton nomination was coming to its committee vote. Like Hollywood's other riveting political movie of 1962, "The Manchurian Candidate," "Advise and Consent" is fallout from the McCarthy era: the controversial nominee for secretary of state (Henry Fonda, who else?) is a stand-in for Alger Hiss. But it may be in even less need of a remake: the intervening four decades have cast this film in a highly contemporary light.
By all rights "Advise and Consent" should be terribly dated. The cold war is now so over that the American and Russian presidents are bonding in Red Square. The film's Kennedy-era ambience - both a J.F.K. brother-in-law (Peter Lawford) and former lover (Gene Tierney) are in the cast - seems as retro as the Hula-Hoop. But when the pivotal gay plot twist kicks in, "Advise and Consent" taps into unfinished business that roils the capital as much, if not more, today than it did then. In 2005, homosexuality is no longer the love that dare not speak its name (the word is never mentioned in the movie), but as Washington fights its nuclear war over the judiciary, it is the ticking time bomb within the conservative movement that no one can defuse.
In "Advise and Consent," the handsome young senator with a gay secret (Don Murray) is from Utah - a striking antecedent of the closeted conservative Mormon lawyer in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." For a public official to be identified as gay in the Washington of the 50's and 60's meant not only career suicide but also potentially actual suicide. Yet Drury, a staunchly anti-Communist conservative of his time, regarded the character as sympathetic, not a villain. The senator's gay affair, he wrote, was "purely personal and harmed no one else." As the historian David K. Johnson observes in "The Lavender Scare," his 2004 account of Washington's anti-gay witch hunts during the cold war era, it's the gay-baiters in Drury's novel who "are the unprincipled menace to the country, using every available tool for partisan advantage." Preminger's movie takes the same stand (though the preposterously stereotyped gay bar scene is the film's own invention).
That message remains on target now. But in the years since, even as it has ceased to be a crime or necessarily a political career-breaker to be gay, unprincipled gay-baiting has mushroomed into a full-fledged political movement. It's a virulent animosity toward gay people that really unites the leaders of the anti-"activist" judiciary crusade, not any intellectually coherent legal theory (they're for judicial activism when it might benefit them in Florida). Their campaign menaces the country on a grander scale than Drury and Preminger ever could have imagined: it uses gay people as cannon fodder on the way to its greater goal of taking down a branch of government that is crucial to the constitutional checks and balances that "Advise and Consent" so powerfully extols.
Today's judge-bashing firebrands often say that it isn't homosexuality per se that riles them, only the potential legalization of same-sex marriage by the courts. That's a sham. These people have been attacking gay people since well before Massachusetts judges took up the issue of marriage, Vermont legalized civil unions or Gavin Newsom was in grade school. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, characterizes the religious right's anti-gay campaign as a 30-year war, dating back to the late 1970's, when the Miss America runner-up Anita Bryant championed the overturning of an anti-discrimination law protecting gay men and lesbians in Dade County, Fla., and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's newly formed Moral Majority issued a "Declaration of War" against homosexuality. A quarter-century later these views remained so unreconstructed that Mr. Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson would go so far as to pin the 9/11 attacks in part on gay men and lesbians - a charge they later withdrew but that Mr. Robertson repositioned just two weeks ago. In response to a question from George Stephanopoulos, he said he now believes that activist judges are a more serious threat than Al Qaeda.
Their cronies are no different. As The Washington Post reported, Rick Scarborough, the Texas preacher and Tom DeLay acolyte whose "Patriot Pastor" network is a leading player in the judiciary battle, first became active in politics in 1992, when he helped oust a local high-school principal for the crime of presiding over an AIDS-awareness assembly. The American Family Association, whose leader, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, is a Scarborough ally, had been whipping up homophobia long before anyone suspected SpongeBob SquarePants of being a stalking horse (or at least a stalking sea sponge) for same-sex marriage. So-called research available on the Wildmon Web site for years - and still there as of last week - asserts that 17 percent of gay men "report eating and/or rubbing themselves with the feces of their partners" and 15 percent "report sex with animals."
Which judges do these people admire? Their patron saint is the former Alabama chief justice Roy S. Moore, best known for his activism in displaying the Ten Commandments; in a ruling against a lesbian mother in a custody case, Mr. Moore deemed homosexuality "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature" and suggested that the state had the power to prohibit homosexual "conduct" with penalties including "confinement and even execution." Another hero is William H. Pryor Jr., the former Alabama attorney general whose nomination to the federal bench was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. A Pryor brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Texas anti-sodomy law argued that decriminalized gay sex would lead to legalized necrophilia, bestiality and child pornography. It was Justice Anthony Kennedy's eloquent dismissal of such vitriol in his 2003 majority opinion striking down the Texas statute that has since made him the right's No. 1 judicial piñata.
What adds a peculiar dynamic to this anti-gay juggernaut is the continued emergence of gay people within its ranks. Allen Drury would have been incredulous if gay-baiters hounding his Utah senator had turned out to be gay themselves, but this has been a consistent pattern throughout the 30-year war. Terry Dolan, a closeted gay man, ran the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which as far back as 1980 was putting out fund-raising letters that said, "Our nation's moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement and the fanatical E.R.A. pushers (many of whom publicly brag they are lesbians)." (Dolan recanted and endorsed gay rights before he died of AIDS in 1986.) The latest boldface name to marry his same-sex partner in Massachusetts is Arthur Finkelstein, the political operative behind the electoral success of Jesse Helms, a senator so homophobic he voted in the minority of the 97-to-3 reauthorization of the Ryan White act for AIDS funding and treatment in 1995.
But surely the most arresting recent case is James E. West, the powerful Republican mayor of Spokane, Wash., whose double life has just been exposed by the local paper, The Spokesman-Review. Mr. West's long, successful political career has been distinguished by his attempts to ban gay men and lesbians from schools and day care centers, to fire gay state employees, to deny City Hall benefits to domestic partners and to stifle AIDS-prevention education. The Spokesman-Review caught him trolling gay Web sites for young men and trying to lure them with gifts and favors. (He has denied accusations of abusing boys when he was a Boy Scout leader some 25 years ago.) Not unlike the Roy Cohn of "Angels in America" - who describes himself as "a heterosexual man" who has sex "with guys" - Mr. West has said he had "relations with adult men" but doesn't "characterize" himself as gay. This is more than hypocrisy - it's pathology.
ALLEN Drury might not have known what to make of Mr. West or of another odd tic in the 30-year war, the recurrent emergence of gay-baiting ideologues with openly gay children (Phyllis Schlafly, Randall Terry, Alan Keyes). According to Mr. Johnson's fresh scholarship in "The Lavender Scare," a likely inspiration for the gay plot line in Drury's "Advise and Consent" was the real-life story of a Wyoming Democrat, Lester Hunt, who shot himself in his Senate office in 1954 after the Republican Campaign Committee threatened to make an issue of his gay son's arrest in Lafayette Park on "morals charges." Those were the dark ages, but it isn't entirely progress that we now have a wider war on gay people, thinly disguised as a debate over the filibuster, cloaked in religion, and counting among its shock troops politicians as utterly bereft of moral bearings as James West. Check out the good old days in "Advise and Consent," not to mention Charles Laughton's valedictory performance as a Bible Belt senator who ultimately puts patriotism over partisanship, and weep.
By FRANK RICH