What does John McCain’s loyal chief of staff – a man who apparently is in a long-term relationship with another man, and appears to be open about it to John McCain -- think about the fact that Sarah Palin devoutly worships at a church that promotes “converting” gays to heterosexuality? What, conversely, does she think of him? More importantly, what does John McCain think about all of this? And don’t we deserve some answers from the American media?
Over the past month I’ve been contacted by three different individuals (two of them members of the Log Cabin Republicans) claiming that McCain’s Senate chief of staff, Mark Buse, is gay. None of these individuals would be quoted by name, though each described Buse as being rather “open” to those around him and to his family – in a “glass closet” rather than deeply undercover or trying to appear heterosexual.
Then I was contacted in recent weeks by 46-year-old Brian Davis, an Arizona resident, who told me about his intimate relationship with Mark Buse (confirmed by Davis' mother, as well as by a long-time friend), and who decided he needed to tell the truth about Buse, on the record, in light of John McCain’s dramatic shift to the ideological religious right in this election and his choice of Sarah Palin, starlet of the evangelical movement, as a running mate. (Repeated calls to Mark Buse's office and calls and email to McCain's communications office in the Senate regarding this story were unreturned. Mike Rogers, the blogger and activist who revealed the truth about Senator Larry Craig and others in politics, today reports this same reality about Mark Buse that I report here, with separate, independent sourcing.)
“We met in June of 1986,” Davis told me about the night he first laid eyes on Buse, who was also in his early 20s at the time. (Below is a video Davis gave to me, which, though it is of poor quality, shows both of them inside Buse’s apartment in Washington years later, in 1993). “It was at a bar in Phoenix called Connections," Davis continued. "I will never forget it, because it was a big night. Divine was performing there that night.”
The reference is of course to the legendary, late drag queen and star of John Waters’ early films, certainly a memorable figure and huge attraction on the gay dance club circuit at that time. Brian Davis says Mark Buse loved Connections and enjoyed going out to the gay clubs in Phoenix in those days.
Today, Buse, 44, is one of the closest and most loyal men to Senator John McCain. He knows McCain's family "intimately," says Davis, and has spent much time with Cindy McCain. When Buse was in his early 20s, when Brian Davis met him, Buse worked as an intern for McCain, back when McCain was a House member. Twenty years later Buse has risen to the highest position in McCain’s Senate office. During those two decades he left McCain for a while to become an influential K Street lobbyist for Exxon Mobil, AT&T Wireless and other multinational corporations, emerging as someone very valuable to those companies – and to John McCain -- after he returned to McCain's Senate office.
Some media attention has in fact focused on Buse’s lobbying years, particularly in light of McCain’s claims that he takes on “the special interests.” In The New York Times’ controversial story last February about McCain’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman – and, according to the paper, the rumors among some advisers that McCain appeared to be having an affair with the woman -- the Times noted, for example: "Mr. McCain has hired another lobbyist, Mark Buse, to run his Senate office. In his case, it was a round trip through the revolving door: Mr. Buse had directed Mr. McCain’s committee staff for seven years before leaving in 2001 to lobby for telecommunications companies."
But though some in the media have focused on Buse’s role as a lobbyist, none have looked at another increasingly relevant detail: Mark Buse’s sexual orientation. And yet, it’s a detail that reveals hypocrisy about John McCain that is as clear as that of his reputation to take on the corporate interests while he has registered lobbyists on his staff and campaign.
John McCain is opposed to every single gay rights measure of recent years –- from a hate crimes bill, to an anti-discrimination bill to an attempt to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military –- and is publicly on record supporting a ballot measure in California this November to strip gays and lesbians there of their legally-won right to marry in that state. If that isn’t enough to make it relevant to report on his 20-year-relationship with a close aide and chief of staff who is gay, the fact that Sarah Palin is now on the ticket -- garnering support for McCain from previously reticent antigay leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family –- surely does.
Mark Buse, after all, is a public figure in his own right. His role as chief of staff to a man running for president has elevated him and certainly his controversial former role as a prominent lobbyist has brought media scrutiny to him. And he is running the Senate office of a 72-year-old presidential candidate who has had recurrent cancer and who might well usher into the White House as president a woman who, by what evidence we have, has melded her politics with her evangelical religious beliefs.
Sarah Palin has been a prominent and visible member of two controversial churches in Wasilla, though much of the media has shied away from telling us much about them (even though cable networks had no problem giving us every minute detail about Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, and his church). Palin adheres to Pentecostalism, a religious fundamentalist movement that is vehemently antigay and believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Little has been asked of Palin –- or of the McCain campaign –- about the relationship between Palin's faith and her political positions, even as many of us have seen her worshipping in her church on YouTube, explaining “God’s plan” for Iraq, praying to God for a pipeline, and thanking a Kenyan evangelical pastor known as a "witchhunter" for laying hands on her and helping her become governor.
As a member of the Wasilla city council Palin reportedly inquired about banning a children's book about gay parents – Daddy’s Roommate -- and she is a darling of the evangelical right, which is hell-bent on keeping gays from attaining further rights and stripping them of every right they've already won. She is opposed not only to marriage for gays but to domestic partnership benefits: Though the media has often gotten it wrong when they cared to look into it, Palin only vetoed a bill that would strip partnership benefits for government employees because the Alaska Supreme Court ruled the bill unconstitutional. Palin’s current church, the Wasilla Bible Church, just this month promoted a “conversion” therapy conference for gays, organized by Focus on the Family in Anchorage.Palin has not come out against the church’s sponsorship, though the American Psychological Association has condemned these programs as psychologically harmful.
Mark Buse’s sexual orientation and his relationship with McCain certainly are relevant facts in light of Palin’s positions, beliefs, past political career and silence on the issues right now. And John McCain is the person responsible for making them relevant by choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate.
“I met Mark that night and we went back to my place,” Brian Davis, who is now an Arizona trucker, continued, telling me about when he met Mark Buse . “The following day I came home from work and there were flowers for me. I was always hoping that I would get into a long term relationship. Back then, I was like a cute little twink. I didn’t have trouble picking up guys and used to hope the guys would be interested long term. But you know, usually they weren’t. But Mark sent me flowers. The following weekend we went out dancing at Connections again. My watch broke on the dance floor and I put it in my pocket. The following week Mark came over and gave me a present -- a brand new Gucci watch.”
Davis was working for American Express in Phoenix at the time. Buse was attending Georgetown University, interning on the hill for John McCain, then a member of the House. It might seem odd for a college student to be able to buy a Gucci watch for his older boyfriend, but this wasn’t just any college student: Mark Buse, like John McCain’s wife Cindy, comes from a wealthy family that had built an empire in Arizona. Buse Printing & Advertising clearly has had its own close relationship with John McCain over the years: According to an article last year in the Washington Post about McCain's PAC's overspending, “McCain's PAC paid $7,274 to Buse Printing, a Phoenix shop run by the family of Mark Buse, who was staff director at the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. McCain chaired the committee at the time.”
Brian Davis says Buse’s affection didn’t end with a Gucci watch. Buse asked him to move back with him to Washington. After first conducting a long-distance relationship for several months, Davis moved to DC. They lived in two different apartments in Washington during their relationship. In that time Davis says he met John McCain several times at his office. Whatever John McCain might have thought of the relationship, Davis doesn’t think Buse had told McCain about it at the time – he was introduced as Buse’s “roommate” --but he’s pretty sure that Buse came out to McCain as the years went on.
Within a year of Davis’s move to DC, he and Buse broke up, Davis explained, after Buse turned to him one morning in bed and said, “Brian, I’m not in love with you anymore.” Davis was heartbroken. He says Buse left him for another man –- the man he says Buse now lives with today. But Davis got over it in time, and remained in touch with Buse, having a friendly relationship, and checking in on the phone or seeing one another every few years. The video below is from 1993, on the weekend of the march on Washington for GLBT rights. Davis attended the march, though Buse, he says, did not, and would not do something that public. (In the video, Davis is holding the camera, in the mirror; Buse is the man who eventually hides behind a pillar). The last time Davis says he spoke with Buse was in 2003.
Davis describes Buse as someone who, like himself at the time, was “more on the conservative side” on fiscal issues but cared about gay rights, and who really believed John McCain would not bow to extremists. And that’s why he can’t believe Buse went back to work for John McCain: Davis, like other self-described libertarian and Independent gay men, voted for McCain in his Senate elections and supported him for president in the 2000 primary. But, he says, he couldn’t possibly support John McCain now for president, not with his lurch to the extremist right.
Davis remembers the John McCain who called people like Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance,” something McCain of course took back after he decided to run for the 2008 presidency. He even remembers Buse having been upset when McCain did something seemingly opportunistic and ugly in pandering to the far right back in 1993, something he says Mccain apologized to Buse about. Davis in fact inferred from his discussion with Buse about the incident that McCain likely knew by that time that Buse was gay and that Buse cared about gay civil rights issues.
“It was around 1993, and Mark was upset, because McCain was going to speak before an antigay group, the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance,” he remembers. “Mark went to him and said this group is antigay and expressed his personal feelings. McCain said he didn’t know the group’s agenda when he accepted the invitation but that now he couldn’t cancel.”
I was in Oregon throughout 1992, covering the gay rights battles there for my first book, when Lon Mabon, leader of the OCA, put a measure on the ballot to declare homosexuality “unnatural and perverse” in the Oregon Constitution. The measure had a good shot of passing ( though, thankfully, it did not). Worse yet, it inspired an ugly wave of hate and violence in a previously placid place. I wrote a piece about it for the op-end page of the New York Times, sounding the alarm.
While it’s possible that McCain didn’t know what the group was about, it seems implausible: fighting the gay movement was the OCA’s major issue, and certainly its cash cow, even if the group did stand against other issues, such as abortion. As I noted in my op-ed, several Republican senators were pacifying Mabon, fearing he would mount a campaign against embattled Oregon Republican Senator Bob Packwood. Those senators -- including McCain’s good friend and current economic advisor, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm -- were feting Mabon in Washington, and more importantly, staying silent about his dangerous, hate-filled campaign in Oregon. In essence, they were throwing gays to the wolves as a way of keeping those wolves at bay.
Oregonian columnist Jeff Mapes last April chronicled the events of 1993 and McCain’s speech (his piece includes articles from the time) which caused much outrage in the gay community in Arizona and elsewhere. He concludes that McCain was part of the effort with Gramm and others to placate Mabon. In response to the uproar, McCain carefully tried to use his speech to talk about tolerance, but Lon Mabon himself didn’t find it objectionable at all. He of course got what he wanted: John McCain speaking at his event.
Whatever the truth about McCain’s motivations or knowledge of the group, Brian Davis says that McCain told Mark Buse that it was a mistake and that it wouldn’t happen again.
It's a telling anecdote and it raises many questions about the events of today and this election. And really, those questions mirror other questions many have been asking about John McCain for a long time.
Has Mark Buse been assured by John McCain that his bowing to religious conservatives is all just politics, that he’s just stringing along the fundies, and that he wouldn’t sell him and his kind to the far right as president? If that is the case, what would the Christian right think about that now and don’t they have a right to know?
And, if true, how would Buse and certainly McCain then explain the choice of Palin, beyond admitting that it is simply a reckless gamble, since it’s quite possible she could become president and bring the ideologues into the White House? Is there some other plan for how do deal with Palin?
Or has McCain’s shift to the far right been more profound rather than solely opportunistic? Perhaps he does truly stand behind his positions against gay rights and perhaps he truly respects Palin’s politics that appear to erase the lines between church and state. In that case, has Mark Buse completely sold out, perhaps transformed by those years as a lobbyist and perhaps having different priorities now -- gay rights be damned?
What else does the reality of Mark Buse's life say about John McCain? Does he see his own chief of staff, someone he has known now for 20 years, as someone who should have no rights, no hate crimes protections, and no employment protection in the private sector? Does he see his own loyal chief of staff as someone who should be hounded by Christian conservatives, pressured to enter damaging “conversion” therapy programs, and made a target of violence that is inspired by the hate spewed by agents of intolerance?
And what does Sarah Palin think of all of this? Does she know about John McCain's gay chief of staff? Is Palin an opportunist too, and is her allegiance to the evangelical right skin deep? Or, is she a true believer who would believe Mark Buse should be sent to an “ex-gay” therapy program to “convert” him to heterosexuality? If she were to become president, will she give more power to the people who would very much like to put every gay American through such a program?
These questions are not going to go away. As I was working on this story I got wind that activist Mike Rogers – the “most feared man on the hill” as the Washington Post called him – was working on it as well. On Friday, Mike, with separate and independent sourcing, went to John McCain’s office to give Buse a "Roy Cohn Award." He filmed it and today he reveals whom he gave the award to on his much-read site, Blogactive.
The traditional media may be petrified to pick up this story but people across the country who see McCain's hypocrisy and who support equality will only demand more answers. Certainly our media could serve us better by getting us those answers rather than once again putting their heads in the sand.