In a remark that inflamed already strained relations in Congress, the second ranking Republican in the House on Friday referred to one of his party’s most frequent critics as a “fag.”
House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, called Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., “Barney Fag” during an interview with reporters. Frank is a homosexual.
Armey immediately corrected himself, and later apologized, saying it was an unintentional slip. But several Democrats and representatives of gay rights groups said it did not appear entirely accidental and that it reflected a newly hostile and bitter environment in the Congress.
In recent weeks, the name-calling from Republicans has ranged from calling the president a traitor to calling his wife “a bitch.” They also have offended blacks by honoring a racist former House member and baffled women by suggesting they are prone to “infections.”
Armey made his remark during a conversation about his plans to write a book. He said he plans to donate the profits to charity to avoid the kinds of criticism leveled by Frank at House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., when he planned to accept a $4.5 million advance for a book.
“I don’t need to listen to Barney Fag … Barney FRANK … haranguing in my ear because I made a few bucks off a book I worked on,” Armey said.
When reporters asked him about the comment later, he returned to the House studio quickly to issue an apology.
“I do not want Barney Frank to believe for one moment I would use a slur against him. I had a trouble with alliteration. I was stumbling, mumbling,” Armey said.
“Barney Frank is a friend of mine. I don’t use the word in personal conversation. I would not use such an expression and I don’t approve of anyone who does this.”
Armey apologized again later in an emotional statement to an unusually attentive and quiet House.
“This was nothing more than an unintentional mispronunciation of another person’s name,” he said.
The two men were later seen talking, apparently amiably, on the House floor.
Frank said he accepted Armey’s apology, but added that he did not believe the remark was “wholly accidental … I just had to believe that it was somewhere in the back of his mind.”
Later, he added that “This is an obviously unpleasant business for all of us. I do appreciate in part what Dick Armey said. … The fact that Dick Armey considered this to be a really negative accusation … is some sign of progress.”
Cathy Renna co-chair of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said Armey “responded well in apologizing quickly.”
But she echoed Frank’s feeling that a slip of the tongue sometimes reveals hidden sentiments.
“It really indicates some of the anti-gay feeling, not just on the Republican side, but in Congress,” Renna said.
Daniel Zingale, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay rights group, said Armey used “hateful language” that betrays “an extreme agenda that seeks to single out gay Americans for discrimination.”
Democrats rushed to criticize Armey.
“Slips of the tongue are revealing what is really inside,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a psychiatrist.
“It’s dispiriting when that type of extreme language is used in the public discourse,” said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said Armey’s remark was symbolic of a Republican “strategy of hatred and division.”
And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said the “Republican leadership seems to have a habit of calling their political opponents names.”