November 21, 2019 at 2:41 pm PST | by Karen Ocamb
‘Firing Line’ host Margaret Hoover explains the GOP

Overheard almost all the time everywhere: There has never been a more divisive time in American history than now. No caveats for the Civil War or the protests against the war in Vietnam.

But to those who are confused, frightened and angry about the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump as the unraveling of democracy, today feels much like William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

The poem was written in 1919 about the social and economic chaos that followed the end of World War I. It’s an era Margaret Hoover, Republican political commentator, LGBTQ advocate and host of PBS’ “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover,”knows something about.

After World War I, Hoover’s great grandfather Herbert Hoover, an engineer and businessman, was called upon by President Woodrow Wilson to lead the salvation of war-destroyed Europe through massive organized food relief efforts. The stock market crashed seven months after Hoover was sworn in as president of the United States and his term became historically associated with the beginning of the Great Depression.

Margaret Hoover believes that Herbert Hoover has been misunderstood over the years and in studying his life to provide his defense, she was deeply inculcated with the concept of “American Individualism,” which she later turned into a book with the subtitle: “How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party.”

The concept of individual freedom led her to the fight for LGBTQ equality and not giving up on the legacy of the GOP.

“I haven’t left the party. I have too many elephants in my collection to give them all up. Some of them were my great-grandfathers. They are precious relics of a long history of principled men and women standing for values I still agree with — individualism tempered by communal responsibility, robust international leadership tempered by realism, economic libertarianism, suffrage, abolition,” Hoover tells the Blade.

“Conservatives missed the boat on modern civil rights, but Republicans helped pass both the Civil Right Act and Voting Rights Act,” she notes, reflecting on an era of congressional bipartisanship. “When I feel utterly disconnected to the GOP, perspective is a useful tool. In 160-plus years, it’s really the last 30 years that have elements that give me pause. And in a two-party system, neither party will ever have a monopoly on virtue. I’d rather help fight to make the GOP better where it’s falling short.”

Hoover thinks she and legendary attorney Ted Olson may be the only two well-known Republicans who came to their support for LGBTQ equality based on their deep belief in individual freedom, rather than in response to having an LGBTQ relative. Hoover served on the Advisory Council for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) when Olson successfully argued the federal case against Prop 8 with Democratic stalwart David Boies.

“The first time I remember thinking about LGBT equality was when I was 12, when a friend’s dad came out,” says Hoover, now 41. “It was the early ’90s, and I just did the math then and decided that LGBT Americans shouldn’t have to relate to their government any differently than straight Americans.”

Additionally, she says, “I always thought LGBT freedom was entirely consistent with the brand of Western Conservatism I grew up with in Colorado — the same western conservatism that was socially libertarian, that explained why Barry Goldwater’s family brought Planned Parenthood to Arizona and why he famously remarked at the end of his life that you don’t have to ‘be straight to shoot straight,’ regarding gays serving openly in the military.”

Margaret Hoover talks with former Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice (Photo courtesy “Firing Line”)

Hoover’s not happy with how Trump has taken over the Republican Party.

“I think the president has abused the powers of his office and betrayed the trust the American people bestowed on him. I suspect he’ll be impeached,” Hoover says. “But one can’t engage with the question of impeachment absent the reality that a House impeachment vote will likely lead to an acquittal by the Senate. Ultimately, I worry that our system has become so hyper-partisan that no one can think for themselves anymore because going against your party will cost you your job. There’s no moral courage.”

But while Hoover recognizes that arguing with staunch Trump supporters can be painful — such as at a holiday meal — she urges compassion to avoid severing connections that could be repaired in time.

“In dealing with anyone you love in politics — and I’d be careful not to call Trump supporters cultists — my mom and dad and family aren’t cultists, too many smart people have fallen into an ‘us against them’ that is tearing us apart. So check yourself,” she says. “When dealing with anyone I love in politics, I think of my friend Jean Safer’s book — “I Love You but I Hate Your Politics” — and I just focus on the love part.

“For the politics,” she continues, “rededicate your personal efforts to changing your elected leader or the policies you care about or the president. But the people in our lives, and the love in our lives, are the relationships that make or break us as happy humans thriving in the world. When the relationships in our lives are off, we’re off.  So, you have to separate how you love, and how you think about politics.”

In addition to AFER, Hoover has put her personal efforts toward the American Unity Fund – her non-profit “dedicated to advancing the cause of freedom for LGBTQ Americans by making the conservative case that freedom truly means freedom for everyone.”

This is not just a nice note on the resume. Hoover advocates for the cause of LGBTQ Americans everywhere, including during a June 2018 appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” pitching her new “Firing Line” show.

Colbert — who became famous among conservatives during his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report” (2005-2014) — watched the original “Firing Line” as a kid and marveled at creator William F. Buckley, the father of conservativism and a TV star, and for 33 years, the longest running host of a TV show.

After noting that she would not even try to be William F. Buckley, Hoover suddenly digressed into an LGBTQ tangent when asked if she was a conservative.

“I consider myself a conservative to a certain extent. I moonlight as an LGBT advocate. I run an LGBT advocacy organization (big applause) that works with Republicans,” Hoover said. “We make the case that freedom means freedom for everyone. And where that really lends itself at this moment in time is to secure full civil rights protections for LGBT Americans because there are still 28 states where you can be fired for being gay! All these things that Republicans don’t know — and those states are mostly red states so you need Republicans to engage Republicans on that front. There are many people who are socially conservative who would not say I’m conservative because of those views.”

On “Firing Line,” Hoover has a polite, civil “contest of ideas” for roughly 30 minutes with one guest to explore a subject in depth. Some interviews broke news such as her interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Israel and the Palestinians and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on prosecuting Jared Kushner’s father. Others are subjects that need further investigation, such as discussing cyber security for the next elections with Sen. Mark Warner.

Other interviews are both professional and personal, such as her interview with friend Meghan McCain and Cindy McCain after the one-year anniversary of Sen. John McCain’s death.

“I’m a huge fan of ‘Firing Line’ and grew up watching it,” said Meghan McCain, another LGBTQ ally. “It’s such an iconic brand.”

Hoover surprised them with a 1998 clip of John McCain on the original “Firing Line” with Buckley. Meghan, then 13, had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and her father was concerned she would take up smoking after watching DiCaprio smoke on film. She didn’t.

Hoover noted how Democrats are now mentioning McCain to signal bipartisanship.

“I think my husband would have a real chuckle over it, I really do,” said Cindy McCain, who noted how close McCain was with Democratic icon, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Meghan had a different view. “I remember people taking real low blows and low shots at him — and I also appreciate people respecting and bringing him up. But I also think that maybe if you hadn’t demonized him so much and demonized Mitt Romney so much, maybe it wouldn’t have bred the feeding ground for Trump because Trump didn’t just come,” she said.

John McCain was “always looking to reach across the aisle, to work alongside — he was a truly decent, wonderful man. I’m not just saying that because he’s my father,” said Meghan. “And now we have someone who has, I believe, no character, no discipline, has no interest in working with the other side, and I think that it was the beginning of it, if we look back now in the past 10 years.”

When Trump speaks ill of her father, “I go crazy. I turn into the She-Hulk,” Meghan said. “I get very emotional and very angry, and normally have to call you (Hoover). Or my husband.”

Meghan, who identifies as a conservative, not a Republican, told Hoover that her father insisted that she join ABC’s “The View.”

“I was called a mushy RINO (Republican In Name Only) for most of my career,” she says. “All of a sudden, I’m like the queen conservative and no one’s more surprised about it than I am.”

She’s worried about the party, post-Trump.

“Whatever you want to say about the left or people like AOC, they do a really good job of speaking to young people,” Meghan said. “And I think, for us — and I always laugh — Young Republican groups start at 40. I think post-Trump America, for the party, is gonna be a very, very dark place to rebuild.”

How millennials approach politics is of concern to Hoover, too. “Here are these authoritarian regimes that are gaining in ascendance and credibility and you ask millennials now whether they think it’s imperative that you live in a liberal democracy – only 30 percent of them agree. So, I do think we need to make these arguments anew,” she told Colbert.

But, he retorted, do they only hear the word “liberal” and not know that the base of the idea of liberal democracy is a free democracy?

“What I think we need to do both on the show and generally — and this is probably the largest contest of my life — is make the case for the ideas behind the Bill of Rights, for free speech, for freedom, for individual freedom,” Hoover said. “I think that is the major contest of our moment.”

But, Hoover said, “the party has been Trumpified. The conservative movement is more a conservative populism that has very little to do with the tenants and pillars that Buckley put together and that (Ronald) Reagan put together.” She has more in common “with George Will and (the late) Charles Krauthammer and the folks who have a real problem with the president and his approach.”

Hoover notes that her “Firing Line” style is very different from the erudite and elitist William F. Buckley.

“Buckley was trained in Oxford style debate performance in an era where formality reigned supreme and WASPs ruled the elites,” Hoover tells the Blade. “I’m a product of a cultural moment where reality TV and millennials yearn for authenticity in a more diverse country that’s known what conservatives are for decades, thanks to Buckley.  But his tradition — the legacy of engaging someone in a long form exchange of ideas, to understand how they think and what they think and what ideas they think will solve our current problems — has hit a nerve.  What’s old is new again.”

Hoover also believes that “Buckley unfairly gets cast as a homophobe, which I think is a myth, because of one terrible and over-reported moment with (gay) Gore Vidal on television in 1968.”

The two men did not like each other but were under contract with ABC to do a debate, during which Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley called Vidal a “queer.” Michael Lind, an intellectual who knew them both, wrote in Politico in 2015 that “The Best of Enemies” documentary about the feud gets “just about everything” wrong, “but especially the battle between left and right.”

As it turned out, Buckley actually had gay friends, including his National Review best friend, Marvin Liebman, also a co-founder of the conservative movement, who came out in a moving letter published in the July 9, 1990 issue of the National Review.

“I am almost 67 years old. For more than half of my lifetime I have been engaged in, and indeed helped to organize and maintain, the conservative and anti-Communist cause,” Liebman wrote. “All the time I labored in the conservative vineyard, I was gay.”

Buckley’s editor in chief response to Liebman, his “brother in combat” and “dear friend,” was formal but written with “affection and respect” for Liebman. Buckley wrote that he understood the “pain” inflicted by society on gays “sometimes unintentionally, sometimes sadistically. It is wholesome that we should be reproached for causing that pain.” He also promised that National Review “will not be scarred by thoughtless gay-bashing.”

But Buckley added that his “Judeo-Christian tradition” considers homosexuality “unnatural, whatever its etiology.”

Liebman was amused, the Washington Post reported at the time. “He’s been my best and closest friend. That’s just the way he is,” Liebman said. “I don’t feel remotely put down by it. You know, he has these crazy ideas — Judeo-Christian bull. But he’s a nice man.”

Interestingly, Buckley’s older brother Jim, a former U.S. senator from New York for whom Liebman had fundraised, picked up a hefty dinner check, then raised his glass in a toast. “‘This is my way,’ he said with the characteristic Buckley grin, ‘of saluting an act of courage,’” the Washington Post reported July 9, 1990.

In another act of courage, Sean Buckley, Jim Buckley’s college-age grandson, came out as gay on April 26, 2015 in The Daily Beast, which at the time was run by Hoover’s husband, John Avlon. The couple met during former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid; they both subsequently became CNN contributors.

But what Liebman described as anti-gay “Judeo-Christian bull” is still around and still a GOP obsession, now termed “religious liberty.” Hoover believes a congressional Republican strategy is needed to secure LGBTQ equality.

“I support full political freedom for LGBT Americans and a fully comprehensive bill to secure LGBT freedom in federal law,” Hoover tells the Blade. “I’m unconvinced the Equality Act is a realistic path toward bipartisan passage of a bill that will do this. At the same time, I reject the notion that religious liberty is inherently at odds with LGBT freedom.

“I’ve been working for three years on an alternative to the Equality Act that will become public soon, that takes a page out of the historic LGBT nondiscrimination law in Utah where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported protections in employment and housing for gay and transgender people in the state—the most religious state in America!” she says. “By taking the concerns of religious leaders sincerely, we can strike a balance that fully protects LGBT Americans from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and beyond, and earn the necessary bipartisan support for achieving these protections nationwide in the near-term.”

Right now, Hoover hopes, “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover” illustrates how intellect, compassion and civility can set an example to make bipartisan progress.

See “Firing Line” videos here.

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