Monday, May 25, 2009

La Cage aux Democrats, by Frank Rich


So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South. When Obama invoked same-sex marriage in an innocuous joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner two weeks ago — he and his political partner, David Axelrod, went to Iowa to “make it official” — it seemed all the odder that he hasn’t engaged the issue substantively.

“This is a civil rights moment,” Wolfson said, “and Obama has not yet risen to it.” Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.

In reality, they don’t. Obama has long been, as he says, a fierce advocate for gay equality. The Windy City Times has reported that he initially endorsed legalizing same-sex marriage when running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996. The most common rationale for his current passivity is that his plate is too full. But the president has so far shown an impressive inclination both to multitask and to argue passionately for bedrock American principles when he wants to. Relegating fundamental constitutional rights to the bottom of the pile until some to-be-determined future seems like a shell game.

As Wolfson reminds us in his book “Why Marriage Matters,” Dr. King addressed such dawdling in 1963. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait,’ ” King wrote. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”

The gay civil rights movement has fewer obstacles in its path than did Dr. King’s Herculean mission to overthrow the singular legacy of slavery. That makes it all the more shameful that it has fewer courageous allies in Washington than King did. If “American Idol” can sing out for change on Fox in prime time, it ill becomes Obama, of all presidents, to remain mute in the White House.

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