An excerpt from Chapter 1: They Will Eat You Alive
As soon as the bicycle courier arrived with the package, my office manager, Marcus, brought it to me, wished me luck, and then left me alone. I took the yellow, padded envelope in my hands, knowing what it contained: a videotape—and an accusation.
Seated at my cluttered desk, two stories above the loud racket of Market Street’s trolleys, I heard nothing apart from the thump of my heart. My hands shook; they often do—owing to a hereditary muscle tremor common to the men in my family—but my anger made the shaking worse. California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s mother-knows-best voice played in my mind: “Oh Jim, they will try to eat you alive,” she had warned.
I freed the tape from the mailer and read the chicken scratch on its label: Pat Robertson.
I must have something better to do than watch this tape, I thought…
Alone in my office, I put my dread aside, pushed the tape into the slot, and took a seat on the nearby sofa. The blue logo of The 700 Club filled the screen and a voice announced Robertson and his co-host Terry Meeuwsen.
The duo stood in front of a set that looked like a living room, as if all of America was being invited into their home. They stood shoulder to shoulder: Robertson, gray-haired and paternal in a tan jacket, blue shirt, and dark tie; Meeuwsen, blond and just short of fifty, perched next to him. They looked deeply into the camera, into the homes of nearly 1 million viewers. Robertson wrinkled his forehead and squinted for emphasis as he announced news on Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, which had been dismissed the day before. My heart quickened as they moved on to me.
“A wealthy tycoon with ties to homosexual groups that promote sex with children may soon be a United States ambassador, without approval of the United States Senate,” Meeuwsen intoned, slowing at the words sex with children. “Are sexual politics and money driving this behind-the-scenes deal? CBN News investigates.”
To me, the show had the atmospherics of children’s theater, and I half-expected to see Bert, Ernie, or Big Bird sitting in the anchor’s chair. Instead, the camera focused on a precisely coiffed gentleman named Lee Webb to introduce the report. Behind him, across a giant screen, was a grainy image of me. It was plucked from a year-old television interview conducted during San Francisco’s 1996 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Parade. I wore a white Coming Out Day T-shirt, appropriate for the sunny weather and the event but not flattering for television. Bulky headphones and a microphone stood out against my cropped white hair. I looked more like an amateur helicopter pilot than an ambassadorial nominee. The words CONTROVERSIAL APPOINTEE hovered in bold letters above my head, with smaller, fading subtitles in rows below: HORMEL, HORMEL.
Next, a written warning appeared on the screen as the pseudo-anchor tipped his head toward the camera: “A word of warning about our next story. This story may contain graphic images that you will not want your children to see.”
Oh please, I thought. How utterly ridiculous.
Describing me as a “radical homosexual activist,” Webb explained that I was President Clinton’s nominee as ambassador to Luxembourg, and that to overcome objections in the Senate, Clinton might use special powers to by-pass a confirmation vote and give me a recess appointment. Next, a reporter from The 700 Club’s very own Christian Broadcasting Network appeared on the screen.
Video rolled of a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol, in which a crowd of nine protesters, identified as “a mix of ex-homosexuals and Christians,” chanted: “Can Hormel! Can Hormel!” They carried signs, some of which read: Pedophiles Go to Jail, not Luxembourg. Speakers claimed that I had given financial support to NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association), an organization founded in the 1970s to advocate relationships between men and boys. In his voice-over, the CBN reporter told viewers that my philanthropic work had “helped popularize homosexuality and child sex abuse.”
My blood boiled. I should have known it would come to this, I thought.
The story moved on to an interview with a Christian activist who eventually became my most aggressive attacker: Andrea Sheldon, of the Traditional Values Coalition. A bleached blonde with light blue eyes, Miss Sheldon appeared on screen in an ample, floral-patterned dress.
She stated that she had visited the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library and found items that she claimed were “X-rated” and “illegal.” She flipped through a fat binder of photocopied materials, several of which flashed on the screen. One was a cartoon sketch of an older man hugging a boy. Another was a vintage black and white photograph of a nude boy, and last appeared a pen and ink illustration of three nude boys diving off a sail boat. Genitalia—assuming they were in fact visible in the originals—were fuzzed out of the broadcast images.
In case any viewers had missed the central allegation of the story, the CBN staffer restated it in his wrap-up: “The anti-Hormel forces gathered here for this demonstration said this isn’t about Luxembourg. It’s not about politics. It’s about the sexual abuse of children.”
Back in the staged living room, Robertson, seated on a stool, delivered his last word:
“Your rights as the American people are being violated on this one, and to send this, this peed-o-phile advocate, to Luxembourg or any foreign country, is an absolute outrage,” he ranted, in his Virginia twang.
The tape ended. The screen filled with loud snow.
Frozen on the sofa, I was furious beyond words. The audacity of it. The outrageousness of presenting this slander as legitimate journalism. Dianne had been right: they were trying to eat me alive.
It had all started in 1992, before President Clinton had even won the election. Over dinner one night at the Fairmont Hotel, the campaign treasurer, Bob Farmer, suggested that I seek a presidential appointment. I found the idea immodest. Who was I to ask for that? Just because I had donated money to the campaign, I should expect some sort of nomination? That didn’t seem right. But as I thought it over, I realized that I had an opportunity to open some eyes, particularly if the post required Senate confirmation. That would force one hundred senators, and possibly the whole American public, to consider the experience of a gay man in America. If I succeeded, I would break a ceiling and make it easier for gay people to serve at the highest levels of government. That would be a big deal.
At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Two years later, in 1994, I was considered as a potential ambassador for Fiji, but the government there objected to my appointment, and my name seemed to sink to the very bottom of the appointment list. For three subsequent years, I was a squeaky wheel in Washington, making dozens of visits and hundreds of phone calls to keep my name in consideration. By the time President Clinton finally nominated me to Luxembourg in October 1997—five years after my dinner with Bob Farmer—I was on an all-out crusade.
When that 700 Club segment aired in April, 1998, I was sixty-five years old and “out” for more than three decades. I had been involved with the equality movement as far back as 1977, when Anita Bryant, a Miss America runner-up living in Florida, started a campaign to kick gay teachers out of schools…
To a certain extent, my skin was thick from walking so many miles along this road. The “me” who was a political animal, and who was willing to put everything aside to get the nomination, could shrug off the pedophilia allegations—they were the price of progress. That “me” saw The 700 Club show as an elaborate performance, designed to stir hatred and fear and, ultimately, raise money for Robertson’s empire.
But far from Washington, in the safety of my office, I couldn’t help but feel hurt. And humiliated. I had spent the last few decades refusing to be humiliated by any individual, or the world at large, but Robertson had managed to do it in a single broadcast.
Dejection and sadness slowly rose within me. They were feelings I knew well—I had been fighting them all my life. They came from an almost instinctual sense that no matter who I was or what I did, I would be neither accepted, nor acceptable, in a society that is relentlessly heterosexual.
Had Robertson really told one million people on national television that I advocated pedophilia?
I felt nauseous, partly from my disgust over the willful fabrication, partly out of fear that the televangelist had succeeded in taking away from me what, by then, I really wanted. I looked around my office at shelves populated with brass-plated plaques and cut crystal awards honoring me for philanthropy and civic involvement. What did they really mean? Did they outweigh the power of innuendo? Of outright lies? Self doubt crept over me. My eyes drifted over assorted photos of my kids and grandchildren, and settled finally on a 5×7-inch black and white portrait of my father, Jay Hormel.
The picture was taken at the height of his career as president of Geo. A. Hormel & Co., a decade or so after SPAM and other products made the company a major international enterprise. Dressed in a checkered shirt, tie, woolen sweater and sports coat, he leaned gingerly against a wall. His thinning gray hair was swept straight back with a dash of pomade; his thin lips stretched into a half-smile. Dashing, charismatic and confident, he seemed to look right back at me.
In an instant, I was in Austin, Minnesota, a timid child in the third grade, self-consciously running from a chauffeur-driven car to the door of the school. As I crossed the threshold, I hoped to fade into the crowd and be one of the boys. But that never happened. There was a sense, even among my fellow eight-year olds, that I should be treated differently. In Austin, there were the Hormels, and then there was Everybody Else. And I could never, ever be Everybody Else. When that little boy – who is still alive inside me – heard Robertson’s accusations, he wanted to run and hide and cry.
That April 2nd blew by in a cyclone of phone calls between Washington and San Francisco, all part of a protracted conversation with White House and State Department officials, and other friends, about whether to respond to Robertson’s program, or ignore it entirely. Late that night, Ray came to say goodbye and tell me I was the last one in the office. My body was tired and my eyes ached. He didn’t look much better.
“You know Jim, you don’t have to put yourself through it,” he said. “Maybe it’s not worth it.”
“I’ve been wondering the very same thing,” I said.
What ate at me was my certainty that the association would stick. Thousands and thousands of people, perhaps including Senators whose votes I needed to become an ambassador, would not question it. They would take it on faith. I imagined the range of people who might have watched the broadcast: retirees in their easy chairs, mothers folding laundry, a farmer eating lunch—all of them reacting to the broadcast in the same way. “That’s disgusting,” or, “That dirty, filthy man!” or “Typical Clinton, appointing a pervert like that guy!”
I could fight back with the facts: I never had and never would consider supporting any man–boy love association. I had nothing to do with selecting materials for the Hormel Center, most of which, by the way, also happened to be in the Library of Congress. I could point out how unethical it would be for a donor to influence a library’s collection. I could open my heart and explain that I had been married once, that I was a father of five and grandfather to twelve, loving and beloved, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, made me sicker than to think of one of them being abused.
But none of that would be enough to put to rest the suspicion so carefully cultivated by the Christian Righteous that maybe, just maybe, I was a pedophile.