Follow politics long enough — or even just a week — and you’re bound to come to the cynical conclusion that there’s no such thing as a coincidence, especially during an election year. President Obama announced yesterday that he’d gone “through an evolution on this issue” of same-sex marriage and now believes that his previous halfway stance — that civil unions were sufficient for gay couples — was no longer enough.
“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,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “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.”
Liberals rejoiced, with celebrities and Democratic politicians expressing their gratitude and excitement in Twitter posts and TV interviews . Fox’s Shepard Smith welcomed the president to the 21st century and described opponents of same-sex marriage as being “on the wrong side of history.” And yet my own enthusiastic approval of Obama’s semi-reversal was tempered by its timing. Thursday, one day after his historic announcement, the president is at George Clooney’s house raising a record fundraising haul from the Hollywood elite.
Hollywood is not a monolith, but it’s an understatement to say that equal rights for gay couples is an important issue to many of the wealthy liberals in the entertainment industry. “This is the kind of leadership we support,” producer Norman Lear told the The New York Times right after Obama’s announcement, adding that he and his wife, Lyn, had been withholding their financial support for Obama’s re-election campaign. “We are happy to max out today to his re-election campaign.”
The president stands to raise as much as $15 million from the event at Clooney’s house tonight, as dozens of celebs fork over $40,000 each for the Wolfgang Puck dinner organized by DreamWorks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Most of that money is not from the attendees, however — it comes from the general public, smaller donors who paid as little as $3 to enter a contest to win tickets to the star-studded event.)
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Obama’s conviction. But I wish his opinion on the matter had “evolved” years ago, or that he had taken an earlier opportunity to express it rather than one day before a huge Hollywood fundraiser. For someone who doesn’t believe in coincidences, it adds a minor taint to what is truly something to be celebrated. It tempts the cynic to consider whether there’s some quid pro quo involved. Recall that West Wing episode, “20 Hours in L.A.” from 2000? President Jed Bartlet is running for re-election, and the Hollywood support he’s always counted on is threatening to hold out until he becomes more vocal on gay rights. Bob Balaban played the Hollywood producer who wanted to play hardball. It went something like this, with the sympathetic but pragmatic Bartlet barking back at the power play because he believed it was bad politics for him personally and for the gay-rights movement for him to get prominently involved. Since approximately 92 percent of the little I know about Washington politics is derived from Aaron Sorkin’s television show, I now have the image of Obama engaging in a similar conversation with a Hollywood powerbroker… and him caving, for lack of a better word. Granted, caving — on this issue — is the correct thing to do, in my opinion. (Bartlet would’ve been a better man if he’d caved.) But caving nevertheless. It’s not the image any president seeks.
To be fair, the White House claims that the president’s announcement was accelerated by recent pro-gay-marriage comments made by Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press. “[Biden] probably got out a little bit over his skis but out of generosity of spirit,” Obama said. “Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way, in my own terms, without I think there being a lot of notice to anybody? Sure. But all’s well that ends well.”
I wish the president had acted, rather than reacted. Once again, every president pales in comparison to Josiah Edward Bartlet, even when the fictional president was wrong.