James West under
the (publicity) lens

James West under
            the (publicity) lens

“Online
chatting! Dating men! The divorced mayor was a little stodgy
and plenty conservative with an antigay voting record
in the [Washington] state legislature. As
Frontline tells it, the reporters seemed to be
gunning for him. But on what grounds?” shrieks
Virginia Heffernan in TheNew York Times.

The usually more
reserved critic was fulminating about “A Hidden
Life,” the PBS Frontline documentary on
the late James West, who was the mayor of
Spokane, Wash., famously “outed” by that
city’s newspaper, The Spokesman-Review,
in May 2005. If you are familiar with the West
saga-—which quickly mushroomed from a local scandal
to a national news story—then you're aware
that, prompted by reports from young men whom West had
solicited online for sex, TheSpokesman-Review set up a “sting” of
sorts to track his online trolling for barely legal
youths.

The reason for
the sting stemmed not merely from the hypocrisy of a
conservative politician who had repeatedly voted against gay
rights while being gay himself, but from a scandal
that had unfolded some 25 years before. West’s
best friend David Hahn, a Boy Scouts leader, was accused
of molesting scouts while on a camping trip—and as a
result committed suicide—thus bringing
investigation that might have illuminated West’s
behavior in those camping trips as well, as he was there.

What TheSpokesman-Review discovered in its 2005
investigation was that West, using the handle
“RightBiGuy,” was going into Gay.com not
merely for chat but to find sex partners, whom he
promised jobs in his administration. TheSpokesman-Review’s outing led to a successful
recall effort of West by the citizens of Spokane. But now, a
year after the recall, “A Hidden
Life” endeavors to rewrite that history, and
Heffernan has bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Produced by
Rachel Dretzin and Muriel Soenens, written by Barak Goodman,
and directed by Dretzin and Goodman, “A
Hidden Life” is little more than a slick PR job
designed to “clear” West’s name for the
benefit of heterosexuals eager to renegotiate their
attitudes toward gays. Blatant homophobia is now out
of fashion, but actual equality is out of the question
as well. What Dretzin and company offer instead is the
comfort of condescension.

West "wasn't a
pedophile," the Times' Heffernan says, further
claiming "he wasn't connected to the long-ago
cases of child molestation; and he hadn't offered any jobs
for sexual favors." Heffernan takes her cue from the
documentary, which bypasses lingering questions about
the Boy Scout scandal (now no longer subject to much
in the way of investigative interest, as the alleged
perps are dead) and claims no jobs were offered because
“internships” were
unsalaried—ignoring the door they opened to salaried
positions, which clearly pivoted on an employee
staying in West’s good graces. Heffernan and
the filmmakers are likewise credulous when it comes to Jim
West’s marriage (which has all the integrity of Rock
Hudson’s to Phyllis Gates) and West's claim
that he didn't become interested in members of his own
sex until after his colon cancer diagnosis.

Pull my other
leg—it’s got bells on!

"He had opposed
some pro-gay legislation, but now, given the chance,
he would probably vote the other way, he said,”
Heffernan declares, overlooking not only the telling
pause that West gives in saying this but
overlooking that West opposed a lot more than
“some” legislation. But what really
matters to Heffernan? “In interviews, his hair
looks thin from chemotherapy. He looks exhausted.”
Sad and true but beside the point. She goes on to say,
“The newspaper failed to turn up evidence that
he had ever abused boys.” Which is not at all true,
according to Spokesman-Review editor Steve
Smith, who wrote a column the day after the program aired
answering the film’s charges and clearing up a
number of points, including:

"Frontline said that [West's accuser in the Boy
Scouts incident] Robert Galliher's first mention
of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview.
Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in
a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a
copy of the letter to the newspaper. It’s posted
online.

"Frontline
says Galliher could not explain why he failed to
report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported, Galliher said
he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a
jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a
finger at a powerful politician with close ties to
police.

"The source who
first told Morlin [a West online conquest] he met West
online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of
high school at the time they first began chatting
online and had just turned 19 at the time of their
'date.' Frontline said he was 20. That is not an
inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting.

"The Motorbrock
[the handle the paper used to chat with West online]
deception lasted less than three months, not the six months
described by Frontline.... West, not Motobrock, turned
the online chats to sex.... West, not Motobrock,
raised the prospect of a job/internship at City
Hall.... West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting
in April 2005.”

Smith goes on:

"We reported the
story of a young man, identified by name and the son
of the editor/publisher of a local alternative newspaper,
who said West made improper advances when the young
man was 16 years old. We reported that West had pulled
down the pants of young Cub and Boy Scouts at a
scouting camp when West was a Scout leader, actions that
disturbed parents who witnessed the incident and who
were quoted in the paper.

"We reported the
story of a David Hahn victim who was molested on a
Scout camping trip while West was in a nearby tent. We
reported that West dismissed and humiliated the boy
when he reported the molestation the following day.

"We reported that
West and Hahn, the dead sheriff’s deputy and
acknowledged abuser, took individual boys from Morning Star
Boys Ranch on so-called day trips.

"We reported not
only on West’s appointment of a love interest to the
city Human Rights Commission, but also his subsequent
stalking of Ryan Oelrich and even an offer to pay him
$300 for a nude swim.”

But none of this
matters to the makers of “A Hidden Life” or
all too willing suckers like Heffernan. Gay
self-loathing is nothing new. But as we should know
from the likes of Roy Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover, and more
recently Ted Haggard and Mark Foley, there’s a world
of difference between some benighted soul suffering in
solitude and someone who has power over other
people’s lives.

Times, and TheNew York Times, have changed since executive
editor Abe Rosenthal ordered that the word
gay be banned from the paper (and mention
of same-sexuality), thus forcing a number of
talented journalists to reinforce their already sturdy
closet doors. Ellen DeGeneres is a
“mainstream” entertainer. And when it comes
leading men, Rock Hudson has been superseded by the
out and proud Neil Patrick Harris—the first
major actor in history to correct his publicist’s
reflexive attempt at closeting.

Now, really, Ms.
Heffernan, are you really afraid for Doogie Howser?
Lighten up. He’s here. He’s queer. He's used
to it. And so are far more others than you would like
to admit. Put down your plush Jim West toy and face
the real world.

Latest videos on Advocate

From our Sponsors

READER COMMENTS ()