Thursday, May 10, 2012

The evolution of a president

SOMETIMES, in a relative instant, a society of laws makes advances in ways that have nothing to do with the law. In one galvanizing rhetorical moment, things are unmistakably clarified, and we’re called on not to think, but to believe. American society is decorated with a lot of such moments: President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address; Joe Welch’s takedown of Joseph McCarthy; President Kennedy’s moonshot challenge; Martin Luther King’s cri de coeur at the Lincoln Memorial.

We had another of those moments on Wednesday afternoon, but it didn’t happen in a hall or a hearing room or the hallowed ground of a military cemetery. It happened in the White House; it happened when President Barack Obama completed his evolutionary journey on the matter of the rights of gays to the institution of marriage, saying in an ABC News interview what much of the country’s already decided in the real world:

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

The president joins a growing number of Americans who feel the same way. “More than half of Americans say they approve of President Obama's stance that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally,” a new USA Today/Gallup Poll reported. “Overall, 51% approve of Obama's new position on same-sex marriage, compared with 45% who disapprove.”

The issue of gay marriage, something Obama has grappled with privately for some time, has taken point in the national debate — and the presidential campaign. It’s hardly caught Obama off guard; thanks to a range of policies and executive orders going back years, and the power of the bully pulpit, he’s already the most LGBT-friendly president in American history. Still, his “evolving” on gay marriage took its sweet time in taking place. Leave it to Vice President Joe Biden to turn up the heat on that evolution.

But Biden didn’t corner the president, didn’t put him somewhere he wasn’t already prepared to go. Yeah, the vice president may have affected the timing of what was to come, but it was the president himself who set the tone, delivering a transformative moment in the nation’s sense of itself not by thundering to a vast crowd on a stage, but one on one with Robin Roberts, in a setting that underlined the issue’s importance as a dimension of national persona, rather than national policy.

It’s one of those things presidents are called on to do, to evangelize for the idea of this nation, to pledge allegiance to the charter that makes this country what it is. Obama stepped up to the plate as only he can.

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As lofty and high-minded as the president’s statement was, it also doubled down on political pragmatism. While admitting his own personal preference on the issue, Obama said that state governments and legislatures would have to come to their own conclusions on gay marriage. Disturbingly, this opens the door to nothing less than the process of putting a civil right to a popular vote.

That process has been playing out — most recently in North Carolina, which voted to amend the state constitution to enshrine in law the idea of marriage as a solely heterosexual experience. Sadly, North Carolina is the 30th state to lock that definition down.

The jury’s out on the political fallout Obama faces. Evangelicals are already out in force, opposed to Obama’s announcement. “For the first time this election season, I thought I might send Mitt Romney a check,” said the Rev. David Pinckney, pastor of the River of Grace Church in Concord, N.H., to reporter Shira Schoenberg. “It’s not a civil rights issue, it’s a religious issue,” he said.

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ALL OF WHICH reinforces the political courage Obama demonstrated by taking this stand regardless of the consequences in November. The president has embraced the persuasive powers of his office — the ability to shape opinions and move minds and hearts, if not policies and laws — in a way that was inescapable.

“This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights,” said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people -- and I have no doubt that this will be no exception.”

The Kansas City Star concurred: “[F]or the first time, the millions of gay and lesbian Americans who want nothing less than the full privileges of citizenship can claim the president of the United States as an ally.”

So did The Boston Globe: “His commitment to gay marriage puts him on the right side of history, and demonstrates his willingness to embrace the future.”

In one bold stroke, President Obama has enlisted the awesome imprimatur of the American presidency in the service of an idea whose time has come, one whose time has never gone anywhere in the first place: that "marriage" is not implicitly a gender-specific descriptor; that the fact of two human beings finding each other amid the random billions on this planet is something to be celebrated, publicly and officially, regardless of their gender.

Sometimes, in a relative instant, the gradual process of evolution is accelerated by environmental forces no one saw coming, forces that, once deployed, can’t be reversed or ignored. For our president, our society, our nation, this has been one of those times.

Image credits: Obama: ABC News. Gay married couple: greenelent via Lesbian married couple: Associated Press via Buzzfeed

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