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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Two Presidents

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.


Bruce Wilder said...

The caste systems of racial discrimination and the feminine mystique began to break down in the social cauldron of World War II, with its national mobilization. The incredibly high sense of social and political solidarity manufactured in WWII was imbued with the idealistic rhetoric of FDR's New Deal and the liberalism he empowered. Many of what we think of as New Deal accomplishments, were accomplishments under the economic domination of the economy, permitted by the demands of Total War -- including the final end of the Great Depression in a radical compression of income distribution, making the country egalitarian in ways it had not been since the Civil War.

The sense of national solidarity forged in WWII was fused to the memory of active class and ethnic warfare, which had characterized the Gilded Age. Partisan identification, which today is mostly a matter of ideological worldview, was tied to regional, ethnic and class identities, a reflection of persistent and fierce polarization of politics and economics of a kind we are just beginning to experience again.

The erosion of that sense of solidarity continued through the Clinton years, Clinton and Gore being the last Democratic Presidential candidates to try to appeal on populist grounds, to white southerners and the unionized white males of the working class.

In the 1950s, the intense solidarity of WWII manifested its first echo in the intense conformity of the man in the grey flannel suit, Levitt town, and the paranoia of McCarthy. But, the idealism of the War also manifested in the Liberal Consensus, which emerged in the late 1950s. Caro's Master of the Senate makes its centerpiece, LBJ's effort as the Democratic leader of a closely divided (in partisan terms) Senate, to get credit for pushing forward the Civil Rights Act of 1957, as part of a strategy to gain national prominence with which to contend for the 1960 Presidential nomination. Democrats and Republicans were competing in the 1950s to be the party of civil rights, in symbolic although maybe not substantive terms. (The 1957 Civil Rights Act had to be toothless to pass; it was a symbolic act, at best.)

Kennedy's "we" was a reference to the sense of solidarity, which drove forward the popular support for the civil rights movement. The hero of PT109, author of Profiles in Courage, could pronounce that "we" with particular force of conviction, grounded in the solidarity of WWII. Obama's "I", is a measure of how far we are from that sense of solidarity.

Obama's "I" is an inheritance of the libertarian Reagan era, in which Obama's own political awareness was born. Carter and Reagan presided over the beginning of "deregulation" -- the destruction of the bulwarks against plutocratic domination put in place in the 1930s -- as well as the dissolution of many traditional ethnic and class fractures in political identification. In many ways, Obama's "I" is appropriate to a reform of social mores, which is the culmination of a long erosion of the demand on individuals to conform, and to submit to a hierarchy of roles, even if it also reflects a social atomization.

The other story of the week was the report of Romney as a prep school twit in the 1960s, leading a group intent on forcibly cutting the long hair of a fellow student, and Romney, tellingly, denying that he thought the student might be homosexual -- "the farthest thing from his mind", he said; a statement I fully credit. Such incidents were common in the mid-1960s. Didn't Stephen Stills sing a song about almost it? Long hair, a symbol of an individual's claim to non-conformity, as an incitement to violence -- it is inconceivable to us, today, even though the tragedy of Trayvon Martin reminds us that reactionary idiots and violence are still with us.

The breakdown of caste took place apace with the entropy of a classless solidarity, born of war.

Anonymous said...

informative to read original kennedy speech in parallel with Obama interview to compare civil rights in a broader sense instead of just seeing a headline. I have gay relatives and colleagues and accept their rights but have not thought much deeper on this being from a conservative catholic background originally and still relgious though in my own way. All what Obama said is of course right that if people have responsibility they should also have rights like everyone else and that what people do in private is their own problem of course. The differenc making gays a more "I" instead of "we" matter is that it is a personal choice taken, as it seems, in puberty. Blacks, females and religious minorities are born into their status basically. So we see the emphasis on the "I" in Obama's interview in relation to a personal choice of gayness. Suppose that religion were always in our society left to a young person to decide at 16 years of age, without compulsion, coercion or influence of any sort, and then totally respected and practiced in private, like I do yoga and meditate but don't go to any temple or whatever and discuss it with nobody and got into it on my own time as an adult. This is the modern way of big city religion and apparently of sexuality. However forming a family is a part of the life cycle contained in religious ceremony from birth to death and being gay generally means (although thorugh technology and adoption that can be worked around) being childless but not as a nun, or monk or like an unhappy spinster or bachelor of the past. We have little or no religious or cultural tradition in terms of literature for example in this direction. Julius Caesar had a lover. Spartan males all had male lovers as youths but marriage and children was a duty. So gay or sexual orientation was not really the same thing as we think about. India has its gays who are like women, etc. I think of Oscar Wilde and his interesting literary works and life tragedy - he was married. Culture develops. We have too many people of course and a complicated culture demands complicatedf solutions not one size fits all. I recall reading the Ottoman history and one of their Sultans was gay to avoid civil war, as always occured due to infighting among the polygamous sons of previous rulers. If our civilization collapses back to a hard work male/female dichotomy due to peak oil we will experience less LGBT roles for sure as overiding hormonal influnce on the body and traditional physical roles go hand in hand I think. Women's and worker's rights and equality of races could disappear again. Who knows. This could take a century or more after collapse so sort out. Like the dark ages after Rome.

Anonymous said...

I honestly can't see the rationale for same sex marriage. We are talking about creating an entirely unique legal construct for what is truly a choice and not an unconteollable genetic fact (such as race or gender). As a business owner, I have a real problem with having to provide health insurance on a gay person's partner. Don't get me wrong, I wish them no harm , but I can see no grounds for turning their behavior of choice into a new entity with special legal status. I am just speaking honestly here, perhaps someone can explain objectively why this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

In response to my above poster, I just have one question to ask.

If Freedom is about choices based on consensual relationships, and if your against a choice, Gay Marriage, based on a consensual relationship, how do you reconcile your beliefs with Freedom?

Bruce Wilder said...

In reply to Anonymous @ 12:31 am:

The Sexual Revolution was an historic event, stretching over a generation, centered on 1967 -- if you need dates, I think one can discern it gathering momentum 12 years before, and gradually consolidating into a new cultural regime, over the 12 years after. It completely changed our concept of the institution of marriage.

Before the Sexual Revolution, marriage was a license to engage in sexual intercourse, a license granted by the state and church, jointly. Sexual behavior outside of marriage was regarded as mortal sin by the churches, and criminal by the state. Adultery, fornication, sodomy -- these are legal terms for criminal acts. In support of this regime of repressive regulation of sexual behavior, censorship was employed, and public scandals were used to shame and humiliate those, who dared deviate. An unmarried couple could not rent an apartment; "morals clauses" in employment contracts and professional licensing, barred not just homosexuality, but many normal and "innocent" behaviors. My schoolteacher mother was prohibited by her contract with a public school, from marrying or getting pregnant -- and she was fired in 1946, when she did both (in the proper order, though with attempted secrecy, if you must ask).

The Sexual Revolution changed all of that. Sexual behavior became a matter of personal expression and marriage was transformed into a contract between two parties, for private purposes. Criminalization of most sexual behavior outside of marriage was dropped, and the associated taboos eroded, as did the Power of Scandal to do more than titillate and entertain. Censorship went away.

The caste system, which had assigned women (and gay men) to jobs in underpaid service roles, like teacher and nurse, faded.

"Gay marriage" is just a logical culmination of the cultural regime put in place by the Sexual Revolution, a working out of marriage conceived of as a personal contract.

The custom of paying the married (male "breadwinner") employee more, including health insurance for the family, is part of the associated caste system. It has been eroding, too. So, your questioning of the logic of providing "partner benefits" is . . . logical.