Sex, race, and the Republican presidential campaign

Rick Perry is under fire for the racial slur that was the name of his family’s hunting camp. Meanwhile, all the GOP presidential candidates are being asked why they didn't stop the booing when a gay soldier raised "don't ask, don't tell" at their recent debate.

Adam Hunger/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry listens to questions at an economic forum in Hampton, New Hampshire, Saturday, October 1, 2011. He's had to answer questions about a family hunting camp named with a racial slur.

Maybe it’s been a slow weekend on the campaign trail (or we’re all just bored with polls and debates), but sexual orientation and race have injected themselves – refreshingly, dare one say? – into the GOP presidential race.

Specifically, Republicans are being taken to task (in some cases, by their own number) for what seemed to be the audience’s insensitive response to a gay soldier who asked a question of candidates by video at the most recent GOP debate.

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry is under fire for the racial slur that was the name of his family’s hunting camp.

A 3,000-word piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, reported from Perry’s hometown of Paint Creek, Tex., asserts that “In the early years of his political career, Rick Perry began hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance. ‘N…..head,’ it read.” (Except the story spells out the name.)

“Over the years, civil rights groups and government agencies have had some success changing those and other racially offensive names that dotted the nation’s maps,” notes Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen. “But the name of this particular parcel did not change for years after it became associated with Rick Perry, first as a private citizen, then as a state official and finally as Texas governor. Some locals still call it that. As recently as this summer, the slablike rock – lying flat, the name still faintly visible beneath a coat of white paint – remained by the gated entrance to the camp.”

The story notes that Perry grew up in a segregated part of the country before the passage of major civil rights laws, and it quotes him as saying the word on the rock is an “offensive name that has no place in the modern world.”

But on Fox News Sunday, Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain (who is African American) took Perry to task over the issue.

There isn't "a more vile, negative word than the N word," Cain said. "For him to leave it there as long as he did before ... they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country."

The Perry camp was quick with damage control.

Ray Sullivan, communications director for the Perry campaign, said the governor's father, Ray Perry, leased the hunting rights in the early 1980s and that Rick Perry was on the lease from 1997 to 2007. Rick Perry has not visited the property since December 2006, Sullivan told the Associated Press.

"Mr. Cain is wrong about the Perry family's quick action to eliminate the word on the rock, but is right the word written by others long ago is insensitive and offensive,” Sullivan said. “That is why the Perrys took quick action to cover and obscure it."

During the most recent GOP debate, some of the audience booed when Stephen Hill, a US Army soldier serving in Iraq, asked via a YouTube clip whether the candidates would try to reinstate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy banning openly gay servicemen and women from serving in the armed forces.

“In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier and I didn’t want to lose my job,” Hill said. “My question is: under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress we’ve made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

That was the point at which boos and hisses could be heard in the audience – taken by many advocates and analysts as an insult to many Americans serving voluntarily in wartime.

Since then, the candidates and others have seen the problem with allowing to stand that response to a serving soldier.

Rick Santorum, who’d jumped right in to declare that he would reinstate DADT, later told Fox News, “I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier.”

“That soldier is serving our country, I thank him for his service to our country,” Santorum said. “I’m sure he’s doing an excellent job. I hope he is safe, and I hope he returns safely, and does his mission well.”

On CBS's “Face the Nation” Sunday, Sen. John McCain (who’d led the opposition to repealing DADT) said the candidates should have stopped the booing.

“The fact is, we should honor every man and woman who is serving in the military and should in no way treat them with anything but the highest regard,” McCain said.

On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, Herman Cain said he regretted not having spoken up on the soldier’s behalf. "In retrospect, because of the controversy it has created and because of the different interpretations that it could have had … that would have been appropriate."

For his part President Obama saw the episode as an opportunity to needle his Republican challengers.

At the annual Human Rights Campaign fundraising dinner Saturday night he said, “We don't believe in the kind of smallness that says it's okay for a stage full of political leaders – one of whom could end up being the president of the United States – being silent when an American soldier is booed.”

“You want to be commander in chief?” Obama asked. “You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it's not politically convenient.”

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