It was one of those surreal, suspended moments, an unexpected little hiccup in the otherwise bleak sociopolitical continuum where you couldn't help but pause and gasp and sit back and let your bitter cynicism and your hard-won ennui fall away and actually allow yourself, for now, just this once, really and truly believe what you were seeing.
Could it really be happening? Was there really any way in hell a straight white male BushCo-era Republican would dare step up to a live microphone in front of a TV camera in a major American city and honestly admit that, well, he was wrong, and he is very sorry, and he has now officially reversed his position and now fully supports gay marriage and will actually sign a city council resolution acknowledging and advocating same?
And furthermore could this politician, during said cynicism-defying announcement, actually choke back tears -- real, human tears, not the fake, creepy kind you see from, say, Ted Haggard or Larry Craig or Lynne Cheney after four martinis and an hour staring at her husband -- such a genuine display of emotion that you can't help but think it might actually be coupled to a living, breathing human soul?
Yes, it happened. Just recently, down in San Diego. Jerry Sanders is the politico, and he's apparently very much a (moderate) Republican mayor and a former police chief, and he apparently has a gay daughter no one really knew was gay and members of his mayoral staff are also gay and somehow, some way, both these facts played into his decision to reverse his position on gay marriage and go public in what has to be one of the most honest, humble and heartfelt public displays of ideological evolution by a Republican since ... well, I can't even think of any. Can you?
But truly, it's one thing to read of Sanders' announcement. It's quite another to see and hear it for yourself. Do it. Go to YouTube. See for yourself.
Here's why you must: The speech contains that rarest of displays for an American politician, the thing we've all been convinced through years and decades simply no longer exists anywhere in the political biosphere, but especially among the famously heartless members of the famously homophobic GOP -- that is, astonishing honesty, humility, openness, heartfelt emotion in matters of love and human connection, sans rhetoric or spin or typical political bulls--t. The speech is, simply put, a deeply touching thing to watch.
Clearly, Sanders is not playing to the audience. He is not stumping for votes or saying what he thinks people want to hear or responding to sinking poll numbers or trying to mollify a whiny special interest group.
His decision was not a "flip-flop." That is, it wasn't made to appease or attract a particular voting bloc or tow the party line, nor was it put forth because Sanders secretly works for Mitt Romney and therefore has no frickin' idea what the hell he actually believes about anything at all unless the church and the polling data whisper it into his creepy robotic ear.
In fact, it is hugely likely that Sanders is right this minute facing a huge outpouring of appalled protests from large hunks of his Republican constituency, possibly most vehemently from the swarms of evangelical Christian megachurches stationed all over that region of California like a perky STD of moral righteousness, places like Harvest and Calvary and Saddleback where it's a safe bet that all the congregants have been urged to write angry, confused letters and hang Sanders in effigy and organize secret gay cuddle parties at the preacher's house in protest. Just a guess.
But there is another fascinating element to this story. There is one more thing to ponder. Is it not curious that, on the rare instances such a personal breakthrough occurs in a pubic political figure, it's most often in the favor of a progressive idea, a humanistic switch away from cultural conservatism?
That is to say, is it not interesting that you almost never hear a Democrat or a liberal step up to a microphone and choke back tears and say, "My people, I have been all wrong about, say, the death penalty (or gun control, or women's rights), and after searching my heart and following my intuition and seeking inspiration from my loving family, I now have reversed my position. I wish to wholly support killing prisoners. What's more, I now support torture, and will vote for the unprovoked bombing or Iran and I just signed a decree that everyone must get a large handgun and by the way it turns out sex really is deeply scary and we cannot let women have such control over their bodies and therefore I no longer support condoms or RU-486 or low-rise jeans in public. Thank you."
Truly, Sanders seems to follow a wondrous, though not often noticed, law of humanistic expansion. It goes something like this: When you find your heart, when you look to your own family and your own life and your own soul for the answers and go beyond the limitations of your political handbook and disregard the bitter decrees force-fed to you by some dogmatic religion or belief system, well, chances are just incredibly good you will emerge a tiny bit more progressive or liberal or open-minded than before. Is that not fascinating?
Sadly, there is almost no point in trying to draw out this atypical event, to imagine, say, someone like Dubya or James Dobson or Dick "The Darkness" Cheney pulling a similarly radical about-face and announcing, in public, that they've had a personal revelation and they actually now understand something nuanced and messy and gorgeous about the concept of human love, given how powermongers at that level have, by and large, had their souls surgically removed by the devil's own chain saw.
No matter. Regardless of his other stances on the issues (and I admit I know almost nothing else about the man or his political slant, nor do I care all that much), Sanders' evolution is something to behold. Indeed, to Bush Republicans and evangelicals alike, his humble, wonderful speech contains the most abhorrent trait unimaginable: an admission of wrongness.
But it's more than that. The speech actually expresses one of the most precious and endangered ideas in all of American society: that human beings, their views and their beliefs and their notions of love and sex and what it means to be alive on this weird blue dot, these things can actually evolve, beliefs can shift, the heart can open, and no matter where you live and who you are and what you do for a living, it's never too late to let love in.
Thoughts for the author? E-mail him. Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
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