A Defense of Jonathan Capehart

Jarrett criticism is a distraction

White House aide Valerie Jarrett copped some serious flak yesterday about her use of the term “lifestyle choice” in reference to gay fifteen-year-old Justin Aarberg, who committed suicide in June. Jarrett used the phrase in an online video interview with The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart. When asked why she had chosen to focus on a rash of gay youth suicides when speaking at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner, Jarrett responded:

Well, I think what we’ve seen over the last few months are some very tragic deaths of young people, our children. And avoidable deaths. They were driven to commit suicide because they were being harassed in school, and driven to do something that no child should ever be driven to do. And in many cases, the parents are doing a good job. Their families are supportive. Before I spoke at the HRC dinner, I met backstage with Tammy Aarberg, her son Andrew. These are good people. They were aware that their son was gay. They embraced him. They loved him. They supported his lifestyle choice.

Andrew Sullivan’s quick response came yesterday afternoon:

Yes, the Obamaites mean well, even if they’ve done so little. But they really are completely clueless, utterly tone-deaf, and completely out to lunch on gay issues, aren’t they? Lifestyle choice? A 15 year old boy is gay, and has a sexual orientation, not a “lifestyle choice,” for Pete’s sake. What’s next: sexual preference?

Gay activist and blogger Michael Petrelis’s take was harsher and aimed at Capehart rather than Jarrett. Calling Capehart the Post’s “gay kapo,” Petrelis wrote:

What an outrage to claim that the 15-year-old Aarberg made a choice to be gay, and that sexual orientation is a lifestyle. Did she get her talking points from Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council? It’s doubly offensive that Capehart makes no effort to point out how dangerous Jarrett’s thinking is.

If Capehart were willing to risk his White House access to events like a Latina Fiesta night, he might have taken his tongue off Jarrett and Obama’s posteriors and challenged her employment of “lifestyle choice” in speaking about the support of the Aarberg family for their gay son and brother.”

Normally, I wouldn’t bother chiming in here; this is very much flash-in-the-blog-pan stuff that will likely disappear from Memeorandum before I’ve finished writing this. And we’re not ones to typically rush to the defense of Beltway boys when accused of access baiting.

However, it’s an issue close to me, and the suggestion that Capehart should ignore the bulk of what Jarrett is saying and instead call her out on the use a single antiquated phrase, seems, frankly, unfair (especially in an interview that was originally about infrastructure). Yes, I find it offensive when people use the term “lifestyle choice” to refer to an orientation, but Jarrett’s heart is clearly in the right place—to interject and challenge her on the use of the phrase after the sentences that preceded it is not only a distraction (Capehart is a journalist, not an activist) but counterproductive to the cause Petrelis is an activist for.

Similarly, smearing Capehart as a “gay kapo” is as unfounded as it is extreme. Capehart may be a Washington insider, flitting between the pages of The Washington Post and the studios of MSNBC—and he did launch a pretty spirited defense of Jarrett here—but he is also one of the mainstream media’s most visible, active voices on gay causes. This week he has been particularly active in drawing attention to the tragic issue of gay suicides, not just by bringing it up with Jarrett, but in his television appearances and writings.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.