The Historic Day No One Really Expected

Both Keith Olbermann and ABC’s Robin Roberts were once sports reporters for ESPN who eventually ended up in what folks like to call the real news, although baseball and football and hockey and all the rest are real enough. Olbermann had a brilliant run on MSNBC until he famously imploded – his ego got the best of him and, as success reveals the man underneath, even those on the left, who found his rants inspired and spot-on, had to concede he was an absolute total jerk. MSNBC fired him, and he then moved on to Al Gore’s odd operation, Current TV – and they also had to fire him. He was beyond eccentric, and not in a good way.

Robin Roberts, however, made the transition from ESPN to ABC’s Good Morning American gracefully – her ego never gets in the way in her reporting or her interviews. In fact, no one much notices her. Say the name and many think of the late Hall of Fame pitcher – the other Robin Roberts, the right-hander who won twenty-eight games in 1952, tying Dizzy Dean’s record. But that’s probably okay with her. She just does her job. Sarah Palin, after spending seven years bouncing around all sorts of community colleges and minor universities, finally got her college degree in sports broadcasting and had hoped to work for ESPN – but that was not to be. But it would have been interesting to see how that might have worked out. We’ll never know.

But this is interesting:

The White House called ABC News on Tuesday to ask about Robin Roberts’ schedule. The Good Morning America co-host works a pre-dawn to midday schedule during the week as part of the usual network morning show routine. But the White House wanted something far from routine: a sit-down interview between her and the President the next day. The questions would be of her choosing, but everyone knew the focus would be same-sex marriage.

Yep, Joe Biden had come out for gay marriage on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan did the same thing on Monday, and the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, had been getting hammered on where Obama stood on the issue. Had he “evolved” yet? The pressure was mounting, and Roberts had interviewed Obama before – he granted her his first interview after his inauguration – without going all in-your-face nuts on him. So this was a careful decision:

“Robin is a very thoughtful interviewer, whose style is perhaps more conversational than confrontational, but she sure makes a lot of news with that approach,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of communications at ABC News, in a phone interview with TPM [Talking Points Memo]. Schneider added that Roberts’ “direct but fair” interviews with Obama helped her land this scoop.

And the whole idea was to make this conversational – more about Obama’s personal position, not any specific policy. But she did get her scoop:

President Obama made history Wednesday, becoming the first sitting president to come out in support of legal same-sex marriage.

In an interview with ABC News, Obama said, “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.”

And he made clear this was personal:

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.

Of course he “still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own” – a nod to the structural reality of our government. But that wasn’t the point:

In the end the values that I care most deeply about and [Michelle] cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

“Treat others the way you would want to be treated.” Did he just cut the feet out from under the Christian right?

But he had been all over the place on this:

Obama’s position on gay marriage has shifted more than once, starting with a 1996 survey in which then-Illinois state Senate candidate Obama checked the box on a questionnaire indicating “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

In 2011, a White House staffer told progressives gathered at the annual Netroots Nation conference that answer was a fake, and that the survey had been filled out by someone else. In the years following 1996, Obama drove to safer ground for a mainstream politician on same-sex marriage. In 2008, Obama said marriage was between one man and one woman, but that he favored civil unions that would grant same-sex couples all the rights and privileges of marriage, if not the right to the actual legal terminology.

But he did say his views were evolving, and it seems they did. And now he’ll have to face the consequences:

Some believe Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage could be a liability for the president, making it tougher for him to rally certain constituencies that otherwise would likely back him, including the black and white working-class vote, to his cause this fall.

Others say it creates another clear line of distinction for an Obama campaign eager to cast the election as a vote between greatly opposed ideologies. Indeed, Obama’s support for gay marriage puts him just about as far from Mitt Romney as he can get.

And Romney reacted carefully – this is touchy subject and good people can disagree here, and no one should be mean to gay people, but he still supports an amendment to the Constitution banning same-sex marriage, overriding what any one state may decide, and on Tuesday night Romney doubled down – no gay marriage and no civil unions either – no nothing for them.

But that figures:

Romney stood by silently as social conservative criticism over his decision to appoint an openly gay national security spokesperson, Richard Grenell, helped push Grenell out the door after less than a month on the job. The episode proved embarrassing for Romney’s campaign, and Romney stressed that his staff had urged Grenell to stay on board.

One must be careful here:

National polling shows the public is evenly split when it comes to same-sex marriage. But support has surged in recent years: Only 27 percent favored legal same-sex marriage in 1996, the year Obama indicated his support for it in the survey, compared with 50 percent who favor it today (Gallup has found support as high as 59 percent in recent years).

The politics on the ground show same-sex marriage support still carries huge liabilities, however. That means Obama is taking a political risk, one that will put America’s readiness to evolve along with him toward expanded rights for gays to the test.

And so it starts:

For conservative pundits and anti-marriage groups, one major theme was that old 2004-era chestnut: The president is trying to destroy YOUR godly heterosexual union.

As a blaring headline on FOX Nation declared OBAMA FLIP FLOPS, DECLARES WAR ON MARRIAGE.

The “war on marriage” portion was eventually edited out, but others were there to pick up the battle standard. “We’ve arrived at a point where the President of the United States is going to lead a war on traditional marriage,” Rush Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday.

But that apostate conservative, David Frum, sees trouble ahead for what’s left of his Republican Party:

The statement changes everything because it locks in place for another generation the Brand ID of Democrats as the party of cultural modernity. This Brand ID fits uneasily upon the Democrats, for they are also the party of ethnic minorities and recent immigrants. With the president’s statement, however, the modernists have gained the clear upper hand. Meanwhile on the Republican side of aisle, the cultural modernists keep losing. For all that people talk about the ascendancy of the Koch Brothers within the GOP, I’d venture that Charles and David feel about same-sex marriage almost exactly as President Obama does. Yet on this one, they lose.

And Frank Rich sees Obama’s redemption:

Obama looked like a phony and a coward each day he fudged this issue, and that his taking a strong and principled stand will have a halo effect on his leadership in general, including among voters who are ambivalent about gay marriage or opposed to it.

And over at the all-conservative-all-the-time National Review, Reihan Salam just doesn’t see how Romney benefits here:

Romney might make gains among culturally conservative opponents of same-sex marriage in Ohio and other Midwestern states, yet GOP campaigning on cultural issues might strengthen the president’s position with college-educated upper-middle-class voters. Drawing a sharp contrast on social issues reinforces the president’s claim to be the candidate of “enlightenment and progress” against “reaction, bigotry, and hate.” This is the kind of campaign – focused on broad generalities rather than detailed questions concerning the state of the economy, debt and deficits, etc. – that the president wants to run – and it is easy to see why.

And at American Prospect, Bob Moser senses a possible change:

Obama has been less of a leader than a follower on the great civil-rights issue of our time. Now he has a chance to lead – to use his bully pulpit and his eloquence to reshape the discussion over marriage equality. … Let’s hope this is the start of something, and not just the belated end of an evolution.

And one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers analyzes Romney’s dilemma:

Romney has to firm up his base while transitioning into a general election posture, so this is a moment of delicate balance for him. Romney wants to talk about the economy, which is what he sees as his primary strength and the biggest potential weakness for the President. As doofy and disingenuous as Romney’s day-to-day presentation of himself can be, he is not dumb and he is working hard to place the campaign on favorable ground.

But Obama has just staked a lightning rod somewhere else.

Romney’s primary tactic has been to reflexively attack any and every move by the President, and so the Republican base will be rabid to have him attack this. So either Romney has to stop talking about the economy, surrendering his best ground, and come off as more fire-breathing on social issues than he wants for the general, or he has to answer to his base why he’s NOT attacking Obama on this, right at the moment they are maximally fired-up from getting Grinnell’s scalp.

I’m glad Obama’s now good on this issue. But looking at the timing, I thought – he’s just plain good.

And the Atlantic’s James Fallows is simply pleased:

I am aware that there are various slice-and-dice cynical assessments one could make of the president’s comments today. (Why did he take so long? Why did he back off the support he’d expressed back in the 1990s? Might this be useful as a wedge issue in the election? It doesn’t have any immediate impact since it’s still up to the states. And so on.) But the fact remains that, five minutes before his announcement, no one could be sure that he would take the step of saying that his personal views had changed. He did – and it was important, brave, potentially risky, and right. That should be noted. It’s a significant day.

But the gay-right activist Dan Savage says slow down here:

So Barack Obama is for marriage equality. Personally. Because he knows some monogamous same-sex couples who are raising children. (Non-monogamous couples can’t get legally married, of course, unless they’re straight.) But the president also supports the “concept” of states – states like, say, North Carolina, which yesterday banned any recognition of same-sex relationships in reality, not in concept – “deciding the issue on their own.” So the president supports same-sex marriage but he believes that states should be able to ban same-sex marriages.

And at Gawker, John Cook seconds that:

Before Roe v. Wade, abortion was a state-by-state issue, too. So was slavery. There are 30 states in which gay men and women are currently barred from marrying one another. Obama’s position is that, while he would have voted the other way, those 30 states are perfectly within their rights to arbitrarily restrict the access of certain individuals to marriage rights based solely on their sexual orientation.

And Dana Goldstein adds this:

It would have been a more historic moment if Obama hadn’t also reaffirmed states’ rights to decide the matter on their own. Here’s hoping he can “evolve” on that, too – since I don’t believe he truly believes it, just like he was never really “personally” against gay marriage.

And Slate’s David Weigel is just cynical:

You could look at this and think that the campaign’s roll-out – it started on Saturday! – was undone by Joe Biden’s loose talk. An alternate theory: The old, phony Obama position, useful as long as gay marriage was unpopular, had stopped being useful.

And the Washington Post’s resident conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, gets all realistic:

I think this is unlikely to change a single vote. The vast number of Americans opposed to gay marriage are either committed conservatives, who will never vote for him, or African American Democrats who will vote for him no matter what. The only implication may be that Christian conservatives’ enthusiasm for Romney increases and his base-turnout problems become a non-concern.

But at the New Yorker, Richard Socarides adds this:

Last December, I wrote a post in which I predicted that Obama would, before the election, make the announcement we heard today. At that time, I wrote, “having the President publicly endorse marriage equality will be an important symbolic and substantive turning point. It would likely accelerate the pro-equality shift in public opinion, including in minority communities. It will make it easier for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, to rule in favor of gay rights in the face of arguments that doing so is out of the mainstream of American political thought. And it might just help get President Obama reelected.”

All of this is still true today.

Jon Rauch argues there is a bit more to it than that:

The courts, as Obama, the former law professor, must be well aware, will take notice. Two big gay-rights cases – one challenging California’s revocation of gay marriage, the other challenging the Defense of Marriage Act – are on their way toward the Supreme Court. With his switch from ambivalence to advocacy, Obama is sending a signal to the courts that the country is ready for gay marriage, giving them more cover to uphold it. Courts may not go by poll results, but they do like to stay within the mainstream. And Obama has just moved it.

And President Obama’s campaign raised one million dollars in the first ninety minutes after Obama endorsed gay marriage – so something is going on.

But Andrew Sullivan sees this in human terms:

I think of all the gay kids out there who now know they have their president on their side. I think of Maurice Sendak, who just died, whose decades-long relationship was never given the respect it deserved. I think of the centuries and decades in which gay people found it impossible to believe that marriage and inclusion in their own families was possible for them, so crushed were they by the weight of social and religious pressure. I think of all those in the plague years shut out of hospital rooms, thrown out of apartments, written out of wills, treated like human garbage because they loved another human being. I think of the gay parents who now feel their president is behind their sacrifices and their love for their children.

And this wasn’t about specific policy:

The interview changes no laws; it has no tangible effect. But it reaffirms for me the integrity of this man we are immensely lucky to have in the White House. Obama’s journey on this has been like that of many other Americans, when faced with the actual reality of gay lives and gay relationships. Yes, there was politics in a lot of it. But not all of it. I was in the room long before the 2008 primaries when Obama spoke to the mother of a gay son about marriage equality. He said he was for equality, but not marriage. Five years later, he sees – as we all see – that you cannot have one without the other. But even then, you knew he saw that woman’s son as his equal as a citizen. It was a moment – way off the record at the time – that clinched my support for him.

And now we have this:

Today Obama did more than make a logical step. He let go of fear. He is clearly prepared to let the political chips fall as they may. That’s why we elected him. That’s the change we believed in. The contrast with a candidate who wants to abolish all rights for gay couples by amending the federal constitution, and who has donated to organizations that seek to “cure” gays, who bowed to pressure from bigots who demanded the head of a spokesman on foreign policy solely because he was gay: how much starker can it get?

My view politically is that this will help Obama. He will be looking to the future generations as his opponent panders to the past.

But Digby in this item looks back on Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 speech to Congress on the Voting Right Act:

Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too – because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Yeah, the president finally said those three words no one ever expected a president to say. These things do happen, even if Obama is not urging anything all that specific right now. But Obama did speak the words no one expected. And Digby hopes one day a president “will be in a position to stand in the Capitol and say about same-sex marriage what Lyndon Johnson said as he told the congress and the American people that they had to pass the Voting rights act.”

And she reminds us that Johnson said this:

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance – and I’ll let you in on a secret – I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.

Well, Obama is no LBJ – or this wasn’t the time or the place for the amazing speech. It was just a pleasant chat with a former sportscaster.

But he’s getting there. And it is an historic day when any politician – and this time no less than the president – stops everything and reminds us of simple common decency. It was an amazing day.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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