The Christine Jorgensen Story was a bit of a stylistic throwback, even in 1970. It was kind of a low-grade melodrama, but the sympathetic treatment of its subject was groundbreaking.
In 1970, we were barely emerging from an ethos in which any sort of sexual divergence from socially approved norms was considered perversion.
Christine Jorgensen was a real person. She had started life as George and became Christine through sex reassignment surgery in 1951. That was way, way before transgender became a word known to much of anyone. The film introduced the idea to a resistant society. Most viewers had to have nodded in recognition of our common upbringing:
George, remember? I told you before. Your sister has her toys, and you have yours.
Look, you have so many lovely toys of your own. Come over. Take a look at your Erector set, why don’t we build something?
Your father will be so proud of you. Let’s build a beautiful, big skyscraper. The best building, the most beautiful building, in all the world.
The film brought her into what would probably have been a fleeting bit of fame. But then she found herself at the center of a United States Senate campaign.
When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a Republican to take his place in the United States Senate. Rockefeller had always been more conservative than was generally acknowledged. He had a reputation as a liberal Republican mostly because of his clashes with what we euphemistically called “cultural conservatives” in those days. That was the polite, politically correct term for those who thought black people were too damn pushy about voting rights and anti-discrimination laws. In those days, lots of folks felt that black people should have been grateful that lynching had been confined mostly to the south.
Rockefeller appointed conservative Congressman Charles Goodell to fill Kennedy’s seat. Goodell was not well known except as a sort of right winger. But a student intern from Wellesley College, working in his office, described him as a thoughtful man who had growing concerns about the conflict in Vietnam. That conservative Republican student was developing doubts of her own. Her name was Hillary Rodham.
After Goodell became Senator Goodell, he began openly questioning the war. Soon, he was speaking out at protest rallies. I remember listening to him him as we peaceably assembled in October, 1970 in Washington DC. He voiced his departure from a vain and tragic hope:
That we can convert, by words alone, a corrupt Saigon government into a government representative and responsive to the needs of its people.
Senator Charles Goodell, October, 1970
It was not a surprise that the Nixon administration conducting that war was not happy that their conservative friend was urging us to get out of a losing situation. President Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to destroy Senator Goodell.
Those of us who remember Nixon’s Vice President are most likely to recall a few pithy phrases:
…an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.
nattering nabobs of negativism.
His attacks on Charles Goodell were, at first, notable:
I will NOT support a radical liberal no matter what party he belongs to.
Then they became spectacular. His most aggressive attack seems pretty mild today. At the time, the words were considered so inflammatory they were disowned and criticized by Republican candidates for office across the country. He was asked about his criticisms about Senator Goodell, who was, after all, a member of his own party.
If you look at the statements Mr. Goodell made during his time in the House and compare them with some of the statements I have been referring to, you will find that he is truly the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party.
– Spiro Agnew, October 8, 1970, New Orleans
And so Christine Jorgensen became a household name. She was the subject of interviews, mentioned inferentially in films and television shows for decades. Christine Jorgensen died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 62.
Charles Goodell was defeated in his 1970 re-election campaign. The New York liberal vote was divided between Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger. Conservative Party candidate James Buckley was elected for a term with slightly more than a third of the votes cast.
I occasionally think about that 1970 campaign. It was a contentious and discouraging year. The attack using Christine Jorgensen’s name forced me to think about, and to be ashamed of, the way I had always considered sexuality and those whose orientation differed from my own.
Now I think about 1970 as a year of protest. And I think about the spectacle of a conservative Republican national administration targeting an otherwise conservative Republican Senator for defeat because of genuine differences of conscience.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is said already to be a target of the Trump administration in next year’s campaign.
The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.
It seems unlikely that this is a result of the failure of healthcare repeal. It is true that Senator Flake did not endorse the last proposals to end healthcare for millions of people. Neither had several other Republican Senators who are not targeted by our President.
Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas announced they would vote against repeal. Two other Republican Senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine had already said they would vote no on repeal. They were not targeted by Donald Trump for defeat.
Senator Flake has not yielded to loud and persistent pressure from his constituents to come out against healthcare repeal. He has refused to oppose President Trump.
In fact, on most issues, Senator Jeff Flake is among the Senate’s most reliable conservatives. The NRA is enthusiastic about him. Opponents of abortion rights give him a 100% rating. He is a hardline hawk on deficit spending. He is a firm advocate for a balanced budget amendment. He opposes gay marriage. He is a reliable vote against any enforcement of laws against hate crimes that target gay people. The list goes on and on.
Yet President Trump vowed to spend a million dollars of his own money to defeat Senator Flake. Why?
In 2016, Senator Jeff Flake was reported to have told then candidate Trump that some of his remarks about women were personally offensive, and that some positions seemed like those of a hopeless bigot. He told him that to his face.
Here is what he said publicly:
There are certain things you can’t do as a candidate, and some of the things he’s done, I think, are beyond the pale.
Senator Jeff Flake, June 12, 2016
And there it is: the difference between today and almost half a century ago.
Spiro Agnew worked at provocation. He used alliterative phraseology to attract attention to what he called “positive polarization.” But, in the end, his motivation was an actual important difference.
Senator Goodell has sought, flamboyantly and ceaselessly, to openly divorce himself from our President and from the Nixon administration.
Spiro Agnew, October 7, 1970
The word for that is policy.
A year ago, Senator Jeff Flake told his constituents, and told Donald Trump to his face, that he didn’t like how Mr. Trump was acting. The President still seethes with resentment.
The word for that is petty.
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