Published on Sunday, May 23, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Bush and Kerry Both Lag on Civil Rights for Gays
by Thomas Oliphant
WASHINGTON -- PRESIDENT BUSH and Senator John Kerry each made revealing errors last week as they tried for political reasons to skate past the uncomfortable but unavoidable fact that the anniversary of the US Supreme Court's outlawing of school segregation coincided with the commencement of legal marriage between gay people in Massachusetts.
Each attempted to treat the moments as if each had occurred on a different planet, not because each considers them completely disconnected events in the long history of civil rights, but because each is afraid of acknowledging the connections that exist.
With one statement, Bush used boilerplate language to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education as a victory for the idea embodied in the Constitution that every citizen has the right to the equal protection of law. And with another, he used boilerplate language to repeat his call for an amendment to that Constitution which would create an exception to that basic right so that gay people can be discriminated against.
Kerry, on the other hand, coupled his own celebration of the Brown decision with an almost comical effort to avoid acknowledging that what was happening all over Massachusetts that Monday was in fact happening.
Neither even tried to either connect the two dots or explain why he left them unconnected. For those of us who are used to this bobbing and weaving in politics, Kerry's dodge is by far the less noxious, but no less interesting.
In yielding to silly political counsel that his opposition to gay marriage mandated silence on the first day licenses could be issued in his home state, Kerry not only looked the part of a pol unnecessarily, he missed a chance to make an important point.
The point is simply that Kerry opposes all efforts to amend the US Constitution to make gay marriage impossible and to give states the running room to ban so-called civil unions as well. He opposes these efforts for several reasons, but one of them is that he opposes putting overt discrimination into the country's foundational law. That was the point he had a chance to repeat last week and not doing so cost him a chance to tap into the anti-amendment sentiment that hurts Bush from his right as well as his left.
The fact is that Bush's endorsement of the constitutional amendment strategy of antigay activists on the right has at least a substantive validity. Without it, the status quo confronting gay people in the United States is flagrantly unconstitutional: It is literally a denial of equal protection to one group of Americans that even the current, conservative court might not be able to support if challenged. Those of us who are civil rights purists would also argue there is no way amendments to state constitutions that violate the federal Constitution can stand either.
This is why, among other reasons, the gay and lesbian community is giving Kerry's position a pass politically. In the end, one might wish Kerry could simply support leaving alone people who want to get married. But also in the end, his opposition to the proposed amendment to the US Constitution is more than adequate to allow the movement to move forward.
As for Bush, it is too much to ask why he doesn't see the contradiction between his views on Brown and his lip-service support for the antigay marriage amendment. However, it is not too much to note that he has a nasty habit of "balancing" a pro-civil rights message with a clear message to his supporters who oppose equal rights -- as often as not on the same day.
As Senator John Edwards (as strong as strong gets these days in Kerry's Veepstakes) shrewdly noted in his own Brown anniversary appearance in Ohio last week, Bush is adept at this kind of sneaky message-sending, no matter that it is the wrong message.
Last year, for example, Bush chose Martin Luther King's birthday, Jan. 15, as the date to file his administration's brief opposing all of the University of Michigan's admissions policies designed to promote diversity fairly.
And this year, he chose the day after the Rev. King's birthday, on which he laid a wreath at his tomb in Georgia, to take advantage of Congress's absence from Washington to make a so-called recess appointment of Charles Pickering of Mississippi to a federal appeals court.
Nothing happens by accident in this White House. The juxtaposition is intentionally symbolic, and Bush's actions undercut the significance of his words and gestures.
Last week, the additional irony in his statement on gay marriage was that -- as his increasingly antsy friends on the right know too well -- his words have yet to be accompanied by any meaningful action or use of his powers. The amendment is currently going nowhere in Congress. In part, this is because the president has done nothing to make it a priority; in part, this is because many conservatives who believe marriage in a balanced federal system is the states' turf are opposed.
The real moral in this tale is that the advancement of civil and human rights in this country has always featured citizens in the first wave. Sadly, politicians and government are lagging indicators in civil rights, not leading ones.
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