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James West under
the (publicity) lens

James West under
the (publicity) lens


David Ehrenstein takes a look at the mediocre cover-up to save face for former Spokane mayor James West.

"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 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.

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David Ehrenstein