The Rise and Fall of Sam Adams


By Aaron Scott

The Oregonian's well-funded newsroom was criticized for failing to pursue both stories and for publishing Goldschmidt's confession with his word affair to describe what Oregon law defined as rape. 'There was a fair amount of tweaking on the nose going back and forth between Willamette Week and The Oregonian about who reported what first, what went unreported, and who knew what when,' said David Zagel, a transportation consultant who has known Adams since they were children. 'I can imagine no news outlet wanted to be left out of something like this again.'

Adams was running for city commissioner when the same reporter who would expose his relationship with Breedlove ignited the inferno around Goldschmidt. The swift public condemnation weighed heavily in Adams's decision to lie in 2007, he told Out. 'On the heels of that, it was like, no one's going to believe me [that Breedlove was 18].'

Critics claimed he could have survived the fallout in 2007 if he'd just said: 'It was legal, and it's none of your business.' But with Breedlove barely 18, his fears seemed all too prescient. 'We had to lie to survive -- especially people who are older -- and that's why gays and straights are different,' said Byron Beck, former writer of Willamette Week's queer column and a friend of Adams's. 'He lied because he felt all gay hell would break loose if he told the truth. And it did.'

The fervor of public condemnation struck Portland's gay and lesbian community hard. An antigay fringe quickly began hurling homophobic slurs amid calls for resignation, and the media seemed intent on amplifying and sensationalizing the conflict. Over the weeks, reporters continued to inaccurately report that Breedlove was Adams's intern, favor words like grooming and preying, and use titillating MySpace photos of Breedlove in a Speedo or reclining shirtless -- all of which many gays and lesbians perceived as biased (although one has to imagine the media would act no differently with pictures of a scantily clad woman).

Even in the more dignified calls for resignation, many saw a double standard regarding a gay politician. Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, or Bill Clinton, Adams had not cheated on a spouse, nor lied under oath; he had not exploited an employee, nor apparently broken any laws. 'There was a greater age disparity and disparity of stature between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky than between Sam Adams and Beau Breedlove,' said U.S. congressman Barney Frank, who survived his own gay sex scandal in 1989. 'People who defended Clinton and then demand Sam Adams resign are inconsistent.'

In 1998, The Oregonian editorial board recommended Clinton stay in office through the investigation unless it became clear he could not lead, despite the 'cold, calculating, cynical lie' he risked everything to preserve, and most Portlanders agreed. 'What we lefties and liberals said during Clinton was people have the right to lie about sex because it's the only way to protect yourself,' said Savage.

'All people lie to cover up embarrassment,' said Frank. 'It's wrong, but it's not a permanent disqualification from public office.'

Others have argued that the double standard actually worked in reverse: liberals defended Adams because he was gay, while they'd denounce a straight politician without pause. 'It's the hypocrisy and vindictiveness that he's displayed in the cover-up that are particularly alarming to some people,' said reporter Nigel Jaquiss, who broke the story. 'Barney Frank took his lumps, but Sam didn't fess up when first confronted and then dug himself in.'

Adams's revelation devastated gay supporters, who had invested time, money, and commitment in his success. 'He's not just a person who got elected,' said Kathleen Saadat, a longtime local equal rights activist. 'He is a symbolic representation of the hopes of gays and lesbians in the city and even the nation to some degree, which is why people are so angry at him.'

The day after the press conference, the city's oldest gay and lesbian paper, Just Out, demanded Adams resign not only for lying, but for making the gays who came to his defense in 2007 unwitting accomplices. Adams's supporters quickly accused Just Out of rashly hanging Adams to protect itself. 'Initially it was like the whole world was coming after us,' said publisher Marty Davis. 'But in the end, I would say our community seems to be divided right down the middle.'

Although Adams's lies are the primary wedge dividing gay sentiment, it is difficult to separate out the fears and conflicts that persevere around sex in gay culture, and the ways gay men, in particular, can feel implicated by association. 'There are many sectors of the gay community that want nothing more than to be seen as normal,' said sociologist Stein. 'A lot of antisexual attitudes persist and a kind of embarrassment about people like Adams. The gay community has a hard time defending itself against [accusations of pedophilia].'

'Yes, people are upset about the lying; but to be so upset so quickly, there's something deeper going on,' said columnist Beck. 'One, it's about the lying; two, it's about the stereotype; and three, it's about the fact we've been working so hard to say, 'Look we're just like straight people,' but the reality is we're not.'

One week into the scandal, Breedlove, now 21, gave his first interview to The Oregonian, which was accompanied by a photo shoot of the darkly handsome young man playing with his dog, Lolita. Contrary to Adams's admission, Breedlove said the relationship became romantic before he turned 18. He said they kissed twice: the first time, a quick kiss after their first lunch; the second, a more prolonged kiss in a men's bathroom at City Hall. The following week, Breedlove gave tell-all television interviews, sharing everything, right down to the number of times he and Adams had sex during a weekend together.

Breedlove's revelation raised the legal stakes. In 2001, the Oregon court of appeals ruled that lips are an 'intimate part' of the body, which meant that Adams could potentially be charged with third-degree sexual abuse, reported Willamette Week.

For many in this progressive city, whether gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Adams's transgression came down to the age disparity. Summing up the argument, the editor of a suburban paper wrote a column titled 'Sam Adams' Math Problem: 42 + 17 = Y(uck)2.' Consulting fellow fathers, he wrote that if it'd been a straight commissioner and one of his daughters, 'We would hunt the bastard down and beat him like a cheap pi'ata.'

'We've had a bit of a sex panic going for the last 20 years,' said Savage. 'Our culture doesn't know how to deal with its own attraction to the teenage body. We wallow in teenage beauty and then we react with hysteria and persecute anyone who lays a finger on a teen so that we don't feel like we have responsibility for creating this teenage ideal.'