Love among the spuds
PLOVER, Wis. — Tammy Baldwin, who has a very real chance of becoming the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the U.S. Senate, stood with a 73-year-old potato farmer in his fields here the other day and asked him: “How hot am I?”
For the previous half-hour, the farmer had been boastfully showing Baldwin, 50, his equipment: the sorting machine, the stacking machine. And now, in response to her question, he nudged his thermometer close to her. I do mean thermometer, an infrared one, with which he’d just determined that the temperature of the dirt on this scorching July afternoon was 136 degrees.
He took a reading of Baldwin’s skin, which was a crackling 101.
“Wow,” she said, repeating a syllable that was getting a thorough workout as she deftly played a social role as traditional as any: the attractive younger woman stroking the older man’s pride. Her sexual orientation was irrelevant.
Because he didn’t care about it? Or didn’t even know? I had just a few minutes to chat with him before she and a few aides, doing a campaign swing through rural Wisconsin, arrived, and I got the sense that he was familiar only with her politics, the populist tone of which he said he liked.
“And the lesbian part?” wasn’t a phrase I instantly blurted out. The lesbian part shouldn’t be the deciding factor. And to judge from what I observed while shadowing her one day last week, it won’t be.
Baldwin, a Democrat currently serving her seventh term in the House, won’t know until mid-August which of four Republican aspirants she’ll face and precisely what kind of fight she’s in for.
But I don’t think its outcome will be governed by whom and how she loves. Not in 2012. Not with all the change afoot.
Look at the last few weeks, even the last few days. The high-profile wedding in the news over the weekend was of the retiring congressman Barney Frank and his male partner. The high-profile wedding the weekend before that was of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and his male partner.
A male hip-hop star just came out; a prominent pray-away-the-gay advocate just conceded that sexual orientation is Psalms-resistant; Google just announced that it would promote gay rights worldwide, even in countries where homosexual acts are now criminal.
That’s not to mention Anderson Cooper’s recent acknowledgment that he’s gay, which elicited more yawns than gasps. The reaction befit a world in which Ellen DeGeneres is a pitchwoman not only for CoverGirl but also for J.C. Penney, whose catalogs this year included same-sex couples.
The specific issue of same-sex marriage still provokes fierce disagreement. But even factoring that in, the gay rights movement inexorably closes in on its real goal, which is not — as some opponents believe — for everyone to be talking incessantly about homosexuality. Among ourselves we don’t talk incessantly about it, trust me. We talk about dinner, diets and, during a summer like this, air-conditioning. We’re hot all right, but in the same weary, sweaty sense as everyone else.
The goal is for talking about homosexuality to be largely unnecessary. The goal is for the presence, legitimacy and equal rights of gays to be givens.
In 1998, Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian non-incumbent candidate elected to Congress. Four years earlier, Wisconsinites in a different district re-elected Steve Gunderson, a longtime Republican congressman, after learning of his homosexuality. He retired after that term.
For most of Baldwin’s congressional career she was coupled, but the two women broke up in 2010. During an interview late last year, she confirmed for me that she was still single.
When I asked last week if that status had changed, she laughed: “During a U.S. Senate campaign?” She didn’t mean that dating was politically risky. She meant it was time-consuming.
Before entering the Senate race, she had research done on her vulnerabilities. It suggested that her sexual orientation wouldn’t be a useful weapon in attacks against her, she said.
Only once as I shadowed her did it come up, when a supporter sought advice on how to discuss it with others. She told him to focus their attention on what the election was really about: economic opportunity, security and fairness.
Those were the main topics covered when she mingled with voters outside a Curves gym in the town of Friendship and, later, inside a pub in Nekoosa.
In Plover, during her meet-and-greet with the farmer, the conversation turned to spuds. He told her his services were always available — a phone call away — should she need tuber tutelage.
“Remember Dan Quayle,” he said, recalling how the former vice president never lived down his “potatoe” misspelling. “If you’ve got the wrong information, it can hit you real hard.”
How delicious. He surveyed the possible tripwires on her path into history, and all he saw were gratuitous vowels.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.