The big news of the week was of course President Obama's endorsement of gay marriage, prompted, it would seem, by his loose cannon of a Vice President--although I will not be surprised if the whole episode was staged from the beginning. Let me make clear from the outset that I welcome the legalization of gay marriage, which has already occurred in a number of states, and that I hope the President's move wins him more votes than it loses, as it seems very likely to do. (Few if any voters strongly opposed to gay marriage were likely to vote for him anyway, while many young people who support it now have a reason not to stay away in November.) Yet I have recently been discussing the civil rights era of the early 1960s with a friend, and those discussions lead me once again to look at similarities and differences with an eye on discovering the differences in the politics of today and of 50 years ago.
When the gay marriage issue first emerged in the 1990s, Democratic pols evidently sized it up as a danger likely to alienate swing voters. The Congress rushed the "Defense of Marriage Act" through, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and Bill Clinton signed the bill. That left the issue in the states, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court raised it again in 2004 by ruling that not allowing gays to marry was discriminatory. Karl Rove saw an opportunity to rally Evangelical voters, many of whom had not been sufficiently motivated to come out and vote for George W. Bush in 2000. The Republicans put anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballots in a number of states, and they drew voters in large numbers and turned Bush's defeat in the popular vote in 2000 into a victory in 2004.
No issue, probably, is more demographically sensitive than gay rights. Many older Americans do not realize that their children and grandchildren have gone through high school knowing who was gay since the 1990s. In previous eras, because no one knew who was gay, everyone tended to fear they might be--or might be thought to be. Now that situation has changed. When a male or female classmate affirms their same-sex attraction, it makes clear to the majority of their classmates that they do not share it, and everyone gets on with their lives. All this has had an effect in the last few years, and about a half dozen blue states have now legalized gay marriage. Gay characters on television--which always tries to appeal to youth--have proliferated. The situation in the respect is quite parallel to the pro-abortion movement in the late 1960s, which had scored major successes in New York and California before Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973.
President Obama handled the issue with typical care in 2008, declining to endorse gay marriage while favoring civil unions. He did score his last major legislative victory two years later by securing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a great day for the United States and for the American military. Now, willingly or not, he has been pushed to go further. His statement is a good thing in itself and will, as they say, "energize the base." We will turn later to what effect it is going to have. First, let's compare this situation with another one involving minority rights.
September 2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, which triggered a riot that killed two people and required federal troops to quell. Then, in the spring of 1963, a series of demonstrations against segregation in public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama raised the civil rights crisis to a new level. Martin Luther King was among hundreds of arrested demonstrators, and film of police chief Bull Connor's police dogs and firehouses filled the 15-minute evening news broadcasts of the time. As Robert Kennedy explained a year or two later in the oral histories he did after his brother's death, the Administration faced a painful choice. Civil rights demonstrators had been clamoring for years for federal protection, a job which, RFK believed, they lacked either the manpower or the legal basis to do. That left only one option: federal legislation to guarantee equal access to public accommodations, including lunch counters, restaurants, and hotels and motels. JFK had won election in 1960 with the help of the electoral votes of much of the South, and his leading White House political advisers, Kenny O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien, did not want him to get any more out in front on the controversial issue of civil rights. Neither, according to much evidence, did Vice President Johnson, who did not think a public accommodations bill could possibly pass. But the President decided to do so anyway.
On June 11, 1963, the President went on national television to announce the prospect of federal legislation guaranteeing access to public accommodations. He dictated much of the speech in his office just hours before delivering it, and extemporized some of it on the air. The specific occasion for the speech was the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama, accomplished peacefully by federalizing the National Guard troops that George Wallace had mobilized to keep them out. Kennedy used that potent image to put the broader issue of civil rights in the broadest possible context.
"Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.
"It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.
"It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case. . .
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
"One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
"We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or cast system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
"Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them."
The credit for this speech must go, as Kennedy made clear, to the demonstrators who had literally put their lives on the line by the tens of thousands in cities and towns all over the South during the last three years. Kennedy frequently said that the bill should be called the "Bull Connor bill" because Connor's moves against the demonstrators had aroused the whole country. But Kennedy put the issue in the context, first, of the Cold War struggle for influence and power around the world, and secondly, in the context of the last century of American history. Since the Civil War the United States had combined a color blind Constitution with a caste system in a significant portion of the nation. Now, he said, this must stop.
Kennedy and his men knew they were in for along and politically challenging struggle. He commented to his wife that he was ready, if it came to that, to lose the 1964 election on civil rights. But the bill was nearing house passage when he died. (I will have more to say about that later, when the time comes to review Robert Caro's new book.) He and his brother were concerned above all to pass a House bill with broad Republican support, because only such support would secure a cloture vote against a Senate filibuster. All this came to pass after Kennedy's death.
In passing this law, Kennedy could, of course, draw upon substantial Democratic majorities that were in essence the fruit of the New Deal. Civil rights legislation would split his party, but he saw no alternative. And those aspects of the situation differentiate it from what we now face.
Barack Obama's Justice Department has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court, but he has not proposed that the act be repealed. (It has now been pointed out to me that a White House spokesman announced almost a year ago that he did favor a repeal bill that had been introduced, but he didn't mention that in the interview.) With a Republican majority in the House, of course, he could not possibly do so. That majority, I would suggest, reflects the failure of the Boom generation of Democrats to do what their parents and grandparents did: to convince the average American, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation, that they stood for their interests. Obama will be running largely on social issues because he has little else to run on. The Republicans, ironically, will be trying to focus the discussion on the sorry state or our economy, even though they now bear a huge responsibility for it. And thus, Obama's re-election, while good for women's and gay rights, will not in itself hold out any hope of great economic improvement. On the other hand, we should note that in 1963, many Republicans supported Kennedy's civil rights bill. Today I am not aware of a single Republican in Congress who would stand up for gay marriage. Their evolution has been even sadder.
Meanwhile, let us look at some of what President Obama said to ABC News's Robin Roberts. (The entire interview--much too long to quote in full--is here.
"Well-- you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've-- I've been going through an evolution on this issue. I've always been adamant that-- gay and lesbian-- Americans should be treated fairly and equally. And that's why in addition to everything we've done in this administration, rolling back Don't Ask, Don't Tell-- so that-- you know, outstanding Americans can serve our country. Whether it's no longer defending the Defense Against Marriage Act, which-- tried to federalize-- what is historically been state law.
"I've stood on the side of broader equality for-- the L.G.B.T. community. And I had hesitated on gay marriage-- in part, because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. That that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and-- other-- elements that we take for granted. And-- I was sensitive to the fact that-- for a lot of people, you know, the-- the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth.
"But I have to tell you that over the course of-- several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about-- members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in 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're 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. Now-- I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn't want to nationalize the issue. There's a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.
"And what you're seeing is, I think, states working through this issue-- in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that's a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage. . .
"I think that-- you know, the winds of change are happening. They're not blowin'-- with the same force in every state. But I think that what you're gonna see is-- is-- is states-- coming to-- the realization that if-- if a soldier can fight for us, if a police officer can protect our neighborhoods-- if a fire fighter is expected to go into a burning building-- to save our possessions or our kids. The notion that after they were done with that, that we'd say to them, "Oh but by the way, we're gonna treat you differently. That you may not be able to-- enjoy-- the-- the ability of-- of passing on-- what you have to your loved one, if you-- if you die. The notion that somehow if-- if you get sick, your loved one might have trouble visiting you in a hospital.
"You know, I think that as more and more folks think about it, they're gonna say, you know, 'That's not who we are.' And-- and-- as I said, I want to-- I want to emphasize-- that-- I've got a lot of friends-- on the other side of this issue. You know, I'm sure they'll be callin' me up and-- and I respect them. And I understand their perspective, in part, because-- their impulse is the right one. Which is they want to-- they want to preserve and strengthen families.
"And I think they're concerned about-- won't you see families breaking down. It's just that-- maybe they haven't had the experience that I have had in seeing same-sex couples, who are as committed, as monogamous, as responsible-- as loving of-- of-- of a group of parents as-- any-- heterosexual couple that I know. And in some cases, more so."
Now President Obama raised the same issues that Kennedy did--the issue of fairness, and more specifically, the issue of fairness to Americans who serve in the military. But what was most striking to me was the difference in pronouns. Kennedy consistently used "we;" Obama consistently used "I." He presents the decision as primarily a matter of his personal evolution. Kennedy too had evolved considerably on civil rights, but he would never have dreamed of discussing that in public. He gave the American people the results of his evolution and challenged them to accomplish an essential task. He spoke authoritatively, not tentatively and personally. Within about a year, the country had done as he asked.
I think, by the way, that Obama is right one one point. Gay marriage should be left to the states now, although the Supreme Court may eventually force red states to recognize gay marriages under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. As it is, gays will probably continue gravitating to the blue states, just as high-achieving black Americans tend to do. And we shall continue to see ourselves as individuals, defined by our most personal characteristics, rather than by the common tasks we face as citizens. That is one of the problems that Barack Obama, sadly, has decided not to take on.