White House spokesman Ari Fleischer always enters the briefing room with some simple goals. Enunciate the administration line, but never get out in front of it. Inform, but don't inflame. Unlike many people at the intersection of press and politics, he's paid to be the antonym of entertaining.
Last week, he brought his low-key style to the high-profile appointment of openly homosexual Log Cabin Republican activist Scott Evertz to head the president's Office on National AIDS Policy. He's the first-ever openly gay GOP appointee, and the first homosexual AIDS "czar," since President Clinton named straight women to head the office, which he created in 1993. In the story announcing the pick, Mr. Evertz told The Washington Post that some feel the AIDS infection rate of young gay black males "is related to a stigma in the African American community about homosexuality. If that's a fact, then we need to look at how we, with our prevention strategies, prevent this." So, WORLD asked Mr. Fleischer, would the White House policy be one of preventing the stigma of homosexuality?
Mr. Fleischer said it's important "to allow the office to develop and to come up with as many ideas as they can," and that the president is "bringing together some of the best minds to share their ideas. It's too soon to say exactly what the tactics will be."
Already feeling burned by the Senate's quick approval of pro-gay rights Gov. Paul Cellucci as Ambassador to Canada, Christian conservatives were not thrilled with the White House, or its noncommittal stance on stigmas. Within hours, Family Research Council leader Kenneth Connor sent out a statement to supporters saying the appointment showed lack of attention to the "root causes" of AIDS. "If personal responsibility is off the table, it is unlikely that the White House's approach to solving the AIDS crisis will be effective."
Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition said, "We do not want that office to become a bully pulpit for homosexuality." He said this administration "has to show a distinct difference between Clinton's administration and theirs. If not, they will create a serious erosion at the base."
Mr. Evertz, 38, has been working as fundraising director for the United Lutheran Program for the Aging in Milwaukee. In the mid-1980s, he worked as a fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Life, and current legislative director Sue Armacost told WORLD that in the 1990s, Mr. Evertz fought national efforts to strip the pro-life plank out of the Wisconsin state GOP platform. Rev. Ralph Ovadal, head of Wisconsin Christians United, firmly protested the Evertz appointment, but also noted when openly lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin first ran for Congress in 1996, "Scott privately called me and asked if I had any information on Tammy which could help the Republicans prevail over her on election day."
Pro-homosexuality groups were delighted by the Evertz appointment. "It's a very positive sign," said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force called it "an historic, positive step, but it is only a first step." Their "W Watch" website put their "Bush-O-Meter" at one gay or lesbian appointee, and said the Clinton administration had 150.
But no one was happier than the Log Cabin Republicans, the homosexual group Mr. Evertz served as Wisconsin chapter president. Spokesman Kevin Ivers would not tell WORLD who lobbied for Mr. Evertz, but did say it was an "insult" to suggest Mr. Evertz earned the position due to his loyalty to George W. Bush during last year's primaries, when he publicly opposed the national Log Cabin office for airing a commercial supportive of John McCain.
But Mr. Evertz departs strongly from conservatives on gay-rights issues. He worked to oppose "mean-spirited" legislation in Wisconsin against homosexual marriage, helped liberal Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords find witnesses for the gay lobby's Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and declared his "elation" when a court in New Jersey overturned the "absurd" and "antiquated" Boy Scout policy of banning openly homosexual leaders.
As candidate and president, Mr. Bush has tried to keep a distance from gay issues as Bush strategists tried to finesse their way to the votes of both religious conservatives and Log Cabin activists. But it's been the practice of AIDS "czars" to rile the religious right with libertine lectures: In 1994, Kristine Gebbie condemned America's "repressed Victorian morality." Mr. Evertz's first remarks to the press didn't break that pattern, and conservative leaders will be watching for the encores.