On the Brokeback trail, lawmakers cover their tracks

The question “Have you seen ‘Brokeback Mountain’?” is enough to send members of Congress running in the other direction and their spokespeople into a frenzy of excuses about why their bosses have no answer.

Skip Brown, spokesman to conservative Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), the founder of the Values Action Team, said in an official response: “We are going to take a pass on this one.”

Lawmakers often decline to speak on subjects, and that’s often telling. Of 14 congressional Republicans’ offices called for this story, only three would comment.

Democrats, from more liberal parts of the country, were more likely to respond. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who represents Hollywood, has seen the film and enjoyed it. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) has not seen the movie, but his spokesperson reports that he intends to because it “has received such great reviews.”

Those in places such as Utah, Texas and Virginia, however, tended to shy away from the movie that has grossed scores of millions of dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations — more than any other this year.

A spokesman for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said his boss has not seen the movie and “probably won’t go there,” as far as commenting the movie’s effect on politics.

Some members of Congress say it isn’t the film’s subject that is making them stay away, but a lack of time. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said that the last movie he saw was “March of the Penguins,” and that was on a plane to Antarctica. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the last movie he saw was “Soul Food” in 1999, which his aide reminds us is a “black movie.” Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) also blamed time constraints.

“I haven’t not seen it as a political statement,” McHugh said, explaining that late-night paperwork keeps him too busy to see any movie.

The movie, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as lovers, is uncomfortable not just for some members of Congress. Late last month, a member of the Kansas State University audience posed the question to President Bush: “You’re a rancher. A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ if you’d seen it yet?”

The male audience member didn’t stop there. “You would love it. You should check it out.”

Bush, looking uncomfortable, said he had not seen the controversial movie but “had heard about it.” Bush then said, “I hope you go, you know?” After a pause and some laughter Bush cleared up what he meant by adding, “I hope you go back to the ranch and the farm is what I’m about to say.”

The politics surrounding “Brokeback Mountain” are complicated for some lawmakers. Talk about it and risk alienating voters. Don’t talk about it and risk appearing insensitive.

The movie has not only been seen as normalizing elements of gay life but also has created a new term for it. The term “brokeback” is now synonymous with “gay” and is often used in a derogatory way. The film has also been fodder for countless gay-cowboy jokes among late-night comedians.

The dialogue between Bush and the audience member received nearly equal media attention to the speech Bush delivered minutes before on the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance/domestic eavesdropping program. Bush was lampooned by “The Daily Show” and late-night comedians for his answer.

Later that week, a reporter asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) if she had seen the movie. She claimed to have tried to see the movie five times, but each time that she went to a theater in her heavily gay San Francisco district it was sold out. According to a staffer, Pelosi has not had time to see the movie since then because of the State of the Union and other scheduling conflicts.

Rep. Barney Frank (D -Mass.), one of two openly gay House members, would not say whether he had seen the movie. He said he does not discuss what films he attends or what restaurants he frequents. Nonetheless, he said the movie has had a strong political impact because it “demystifies how gay couples behave.” The beginning shows a “healthy gay couple” that is later confronted with “very difficult real-life issues.”

Most conservative members whose offices were called for comment on this story did not respond. They include House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), among others. Many more liberal offices were willing to respond.

Revenue for the movie has been strong in both red and blue states. Despite being banned in a theater owned by Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, it grossed $355,828 in Salt Lake City.

One surprisingly high-grossing theater was the Camelview 5 in Scottsdale, Ariz. The film pulled in $368,601 there, making it the highest grossing movie at the theater in seven years.

The theater’s market straddles two strongly conservative districts, Arizona’s 3rd and 5th, represented by Republican Reps. J.D. Hayworth and John Shadegg, who has not seen the movie and, his press aide said, likely won’t comment on it. Hayworth’s office did not return calls on the subject.

The theater is also located only a few miles from Paradise Valley’s statue of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a conservative icon.

In Waco, Texas, the city nearest to the president’s ranch, with a population of 113,726, the movie has grossed $21,162.

This is not the first film to reverberate so strongly in the political world. Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, says movies have influenced politics since 1915. Pitney points out that when Woodrow Wilson hosted the very first White House screening, he chose “The Birth of a Nation,” which celebrates the Ku Klux Klan.

“The film served as a recruiting device for the second version of the clan,” Pitney said. “It also mobilized the NAACP to protest.”

“Brokeback Mountain” has not yet mobilized troops for a culture war, but a politician’s reaction to the movie is one way for voters to determine in which foxhole a politician lies.