CONFUSED about just what Republicans mean when they say "family values"? Don't feel bad. So are they, which is one reason they never quite say what they mean.
Perhaps another reason is that there might be something un-Republican about family values. Robert Frost described the most important family value of all when he said that home (and he didn't mean the house, but its people) is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.
George Bush must agree. The other day he said he'd love even a granddaughter who turned out to be a terrorist.
The ultimate family value is unconditional love, extended to the deserving and the undeserving alike. This is a value in conflict with that Republican totem, the free market, which rewards success based on talent, persistence, virtue or ruthlessness. Among the threats to family values is capitalism.
Needless to say, this is a complexity with which Republicans would rather not deal. So they just mouth the phrase without defining it, as though they mean nothing by it. But they do mean something. They mean sex.
Remember how it all started, with Vice President Dan Quayle criticizing "Murphy Brown" for "mocking the importance of fathers" because Murphy, though unwed, had a baby. But it was not simply the importance of fathers that gave the matter political resonance. It was also just what Murphy must have done to have that baby. That wasn't artificial insemination, either. It was the other thing.
Unfortunately but significantly, further proof of this definition comes not from the public statements of officials but from the whispered asides of Republican strategists. Unfortunately but significantly, their exact words are not fit for repetition in this space.
Republicans don't often mention sex, because they want to give the impression that they rarely think about it. They would have us believe that all the libertines are Democrats, and that Republicans are proper, the kind of people who regularly go to church, sit on boards of directors, run businesses and serve their country as soldiers, sailors, naval aviators.
Whoops! Maybe we'd best forget about that last group, though to be fair, not every naval aviator stands accused of sexual harassment, and some who were could be Democrats. Besides, it wasn't really sexual harassment. It was assault, which is worse, and it may not have been sexual. A healthy adult man can find no sexual pleasure fondling an unwilling stranger in public. Either the driving force was not sex, or it was homosexual, the thrill based on showing the other guys how crude you can be.
Finally, there is little doubt that part of the Republican definition of "family values" is heterosexuality. In a manner that is indirect but not a bit subtle, the Republicans exude the message that they approve only of sex between men and women while the Democrats give their blessings to less conventional combinations. In fact, pointing out this difference is part of the basic Republican strategy, a "September storm," of associating their opponents with all manner of the bizarre.
Bill Clinton, said one Republican strategist, attended a California fundraiser sponsored by gays and "bought into their message." No, he didn't, but such details are unlikely to deter Republican plans to make much of Mr. Clinton's sympathy, however vaguely expressed, with the cause of homosexual rights.
This may work, and not only because some 90 percent of the people are heterosexual. The political and cultural expressions of the homosexual movement cultivate self-pity in a shrill and obnoxious manner that offends many. But so does mean-spiritedness.
The typical voter may find gay activists tiring. But that voter knows that sexual preference is not a matter of choice, and that if it were, almost no one would make the choice that renders life even more complicated than it has to be.
People are what they are. Their choice is whether or not to hide what they are, from themselves and others. Increasingly, many have chosen not to, and have chosen instead to try to live life as fully as possible, not excluding its romantic and sexual aspects.
Whatever else it is, this impulse is profoundly conservative. It is rugged individualism applied to the realm of the emotions and the erotic. It reflects the determination of those who will find their own way in the world regardless of the obstacles against them.
Must be values they picked up from their families.
Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.