Courage watch: Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly!

MONDAY, MAY 14, 2012

And big pundits have to push script: Did Obama take a “courageous stand” in the case of same-sex marriage? Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Kathleen Parker seemed to say no:
PARKER (5/13/12): This past week’s news cycle has produced two narratives:

One, Barack Obama is an evolutionary, 21st-century hero who supports equality for all.


Let’s parse, shall we?

Obama’s Big Announcement that he supports gay marriage came about for the following reasons: (a) He had no choice after Vice President Biden said on “Meet the Press” that he was fine with same-sex marriage; (b) one in six of Obama’s campaign bundlers, those who raise big bucks, is openly gay; (c) Obama risks nothing except the votes of those who wouldn’t have voted for him anyway
In her column, Parker came out for same-sex marriage herself. But she seemed to say that Obama’s announcement wasn’t especially courageous—although she said “you’d never know it by the media’s response.”

We tend to agree with those assessments, although we don’t mean that as a criticism of Obama. (We also don’t agree with Parker’s point C.) As a major pol seeking re-election, Obama had to say something about same-sex marriage; he couldn’t continue for several years saying he couldn’t decide. When he did speak, he chose the softest degree of support, explicitly presenting this as a matter of states’ rights.

His staff then trashed the vile Joe Biden for making Obama say that much! Biden was frog-marched into the Oval, where he was made to repent.

Biden-fragging to the side, we wouldn’t criticize Obama for his stance. But it isn’t clear why it should be seen as a “courageous stand.”

That said, simple-minded narrative-pushing is what the “press corps” does best. Yesterday, Jonathan Capehart responded in scripted ways on the unwatchable program of recitation known as Meet the Press:
GREGORY (5/12/12): The reality of this is, the president is not making this a federal case. He's saying, "I'm for it, but I'm going to let the states handle this."

CAPEHART: Well, because the states have always been in the business of, of setting the qualifications for, for marriage. And it wasn't until Congress got into the mix by passing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that you had the federalization of marriage.

Look, this idea that the president is punting to the states, I think, is wrong. The states, as I said, they set the qualifications, but they also say who can marry. And in, at the—ultimately, it's the federal Constitution that, that judges whether states have gone too far, whether they have denied equal protection under the law. And it is clear that the president believes that, constitutionally, everyone should have the right to marry whether they're heterosexual or, or same-sex. And I would have to say, just to disagree with the governor here, Gavin Newsom, I do think the president did—was going to change his mind. I think he was going to do it sooner rather than later because he was in an untenable position. The untenable position being that his words were not matching his deeds. If you look at the president's record, as you said, he had a very pro-gay record. In particular, when it came to same-sex marriage, it looked like he supported it, but he would never say the words. Ultimately, because of what happened here on this set a week ago—

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

CAPEHART: —those words and deeds match. And you have people now who are going to benefit from that psychologically.
It’s true that people will benefit psychologically. To some extent, that will happen because those people aren’t being told that the states’ right approach which Obama affirmed means that they will never be married in fact.

Later, Gavin Newsome said that, in his opinion, this was “a point of political courage.” But how does anyone know whether “courage” was involved here? How do we know that the decision wasn’t based on a raw political calculation—on the belief that more votes would be lost by sticking with civil unions?

We don’t mean any of this as a criticism of Obama. In our view, presidents aren’t paid to be courageous in all such things, despite this stirring follow-up from Capehart:
GREGORY: Jonathan, this is, is this about getting back to “hope and change” in 2008 for those supporters for, for Obama who might have been disappointed?

CAPEHART: I think a lot of supporters of the, of the president are buoyed by what he did. But let's remember, leadership is about doing the hard thing when it's neither easy nor convenient. This is not a slam dunk for the president. But siding with families, with gay and lesbian Americans, gay and lesbian Americans who are raising children across the country, who are doing so at a disadvantage because of the tax code, because of local laws, because of federal laws, their president, president of the United States, came out and said that he supports, he supports their right to wed. He supports their right to be fully engaged and involved in the American dream, and that's an important thing to do, that we shouldn't forget.
Parker agrees that Obama took the right stand. She just said it isn’t clear that courage drove the decision.

Sorry. As a general matter, political leadership is not “about doing the hard thing when it's neither easy nor convenient.” In the vast array of cases, political leadership is about doing the most sensible thing on balance—unless you’re one of the silly-bills who are paid to stir our souls with the simplest constructions.

Capehart has emerged as a toady in the past year, a step back from earlier postures. In this case, he joined the herd in praising Obama’s “courageous stand”—his words last Wednesday night.

But did Obama show courage in this decision? Did he “do the hard thing when it wasn’t convenient?” Or did he possibly choose the best of several uncertain options?

We don’t have the slightest idea; Capehart doesn’t know either. But these folk do know the scripts—and they gotta recite.


  1. A gay friend of mine is planning to leave the Bay Area and move to Melbourne, Australia, when his partner's visa expires next year. The key to his partner staying in this country would be repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman (iroically, signed by Bill Clinton, not by a Republican.) Obama's stand would have been stronger and more meaningful if he had come out foursquare for the repeal of DOMA.

    1. The Real AnonymousMay 14, 2012 at 12:13 PM

      Maybe he should instruct the Justice Dept. to not defend DOMA in court or something, right?

      "President Obama stopped legally defending a federal law defining marriage between a man and a woman more than a year ago.

      While today President Obama made clear his personal view on gay marriage, more than a year ago he announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that defines marriage as between a man and a woman."

  2. The Real AnonymousMay 14, 2012 at 12:08 PM

    "We don’t have the slightest idea; Capehart doesn’t know either. But these folk do know the scripts—and they gotta recite."

    Isn't that the job of these shows, to express opinions about the unknowable?

    Its one of the reasons I haven't watched a second of coverage since Obama made his comments. He said what he said and he was the first president to say it. That's the facts.

    Since the cable/internet revolution there is a gaping maw that has to be filled daily.

    I find Capehart's opinion to be closer to the mark than Mr. Somerby's claim that Obama's comments are the equal of Lester Maddox/Bull Connor/George Wallace during the civil rights era.

  3. Opinions about an issue are one thing. Mind reading is another.

  4. Here's why it's an act of courage, Bob.

    The social conservatives who made up such a significant portion of the coalition that put Bush in the White House (barely) twice are not all that fond of the Mittster. And they would have become even less fond as, in his attempt to run back toward the middle, he started "Etch-A-Sketching" all the things he said last winter and spring to pander to them.

    Obama could have kept his mouth shut. The gay vote was going nowhere, and even his gay bundlers had reason to stay excited about him through the non-defense of DOMA and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

    But instead, at the dawn of his re-election run, he spoke out. On a topic that raises high emotions.

    Now it is too bad that he didn't speak out in exactly the way Bob Somerby says he should have spoken out.

    But that doesn't diminish the courage of him speaking out when he really had nothing to gain politically.

  5. He did what he's always done: the bare minimum to make it look like he's doing SOMETHING. There are times when leadership means taking a risk, but Obama just hasn't been able to find one of those times in his presidency. This certainly wasn't one of them. He did, though, make the correct calculation about how the Wamedia would play it, but then again, so did I, so, I imagine, did lots of folks. A mediocre guy making the safest decisions he can find at every turn. I don't think even the Wamedia will be able to change that as the historical narrative of his presidency.

    1. Anonymous on 5/14/12 @ 1:34P: Be fair, after Bush killed Bin Laden, saved the domestic auto industry, quelled the worst financial panic in eighty years, set the end of our occupation of Iraq, and passed health insurance reform, what was left for Obama to take a stand on?

    2. Irony, yeah. But it works better when you have your facts right.

      Obama definitely did not "set the end of our occupation of Iraq" -- if a US pol did that, it was in fact Bush. Obama tried quite hard to get the Iraqis to let us stay, only acquiescing because he had to.

      Your version inverts reality.

    3. Swan: Bush has the same claims to credit for ending the Iraqi occupation as Romney has for saving the auto industry. A brief time on the google finds the following report from the NYT:

      "When negotiations are hopefully coming to an end, when you can see the end in sight, there are a lot of details that have to be worked out, and I think we're in the process of working out details right now," ... [Bush] spokesman [Gordon Johndroe] said.

      The White House, which had in the past rejected firm withdrawal timetables as setting a "surrender date," now says that conditions on the ground allow for "aspirational time horizons" for bringing US troops home.

      [Or in Bush's case, more likely half-aspirational.]

      As recently as May 2007, Bush had defiantly declared: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength."

      So five months before the end of his disastrous 96-month reign of error, Bush decides to accept in principle leaving Iraq. To be fair, the WPE one month before he left office, signed an agreement on troop status. But, of course, Obama actually implemented it.

      Please don't be upset if I don't take lessons from you on reality, 'kay?

    4. @sorbital: Bush, to give him credit, started the bailout of the auto industry, and the banks. Obama didn't do it single handedly. But the point is that was the MINIMUM it took to keep things from falling apart. Not to bail out the auto industry would have triggered a depression, and even the advisers Obama chose to listen to told him that: he had no choice but to act. As for killing Bin Laden, whoop dee fuckin' do. He was an entirely spent force, and his death or life meant nothing except as pure symbolism. It was an opportunity for Obama to look tough, and he took it. Is anyone's life anywhere one iota better off because bin Laden is dead? Not that I can tell.

      Ultimately, though, you've failed when "better than Bush" is the best anyone can say for you. It's like saying that plain tofu you ate because you had nothing else, tasted better than shit. Well, yes, but that doesn't make it good.

    5. Anonymous on 5/15/12 @ 1:12A: Better than Bush leaves whole lotta territory. But Obama's can't catch a break from you, eh? Bin Laden, head of the organization that planned and executed 9/11? Whoop dee fuckin' do. That was nothing, 'cause it sure didn't make your life better. Bailing out the auto industry? Why, Obama had no choice, according to you. And according to Romney now. But not Romney then. Consumer Protection Board: screw it, since you probably don't have credit cards. DADT gone: doesn't matter if you're not gay and in the military, and in any case that was just pandering. Refusal to defend DOMA? Heck, you're probably single so how does that make your life better?

      Did I miss any goal posts for you to move?

    6. Just so we're clear, you agree with me: Yes, Bush's administration produced the troop withdrawal agreement.

      You've backed off from "set the end of our occupation of Iraq" -- which was clearly false -- and now only claim Obama "implemented" the agreement reached under Bush.

      I will spare you the embarrassment of an array of quotes which demonstrate how very hard Obama's administration tried to avoid even "implementing" the withdrawal agreement which actually did set the end of our occupation of Iraq, and was, you now concede, correctly if belatedly, not Obama's but Bush's work.

    7. Finally, noticing the fact that Bush, not Obama, was responsible for the withdrawal agreement, does not mean one thinks Bush is "better" than Obama, unless one has a very small mind.

    8. Swan: Yep, you "got" me. I shouldn't have said "set"; I should have said "actually ended." About a month before the disastrous end of the WPE's second administration, and after fighting the idea for years, Bush agreed to the withdrawal. Did he have a choice? Apparently, because you didn't mention that. Of course he left this on the long list of things for Obama to actually do. Which Obama actually did. Just one more thing for you to denigrate because he tried to avoid it. Or something.

      My point here isn't that everything Obama has done has been brilliantly executed in a display of principle in the service of virtue. My point isn't even that Obama is a superb President compared to Bush. Bush set the bar so low that Obama looks good simply by not firing USAs midterm for political purposes. No, the point is to lampoon Obama's critics who take the position that he's done nothing in the face of the worst economic crisis in 80 years and with a political opposition who's only goal is to stop him from doing anything at all.

      I know, I know. Bush did it all first. Or he thought of it all first. Or something. So why don't we call it even and give Rmoney the credit for the auto bailout?

      Oh, yeah. I'm also gonna say you're in no position to embarrass anyone. But maybe that's just me.

  6. Clearly, Obama deserves another Nobel Prize.

  7. Bob, given your penchant for picayune readings of public statements, this is absurd.

    Is marriage a matter of state law? Yes. Did Obama say so? Yes. Did Obama say that marriage SHOULD be a matter of state law? No, not at all.

    States do, indeed, have the right to define and restrict marriage. They have the right to do loathsome things. That's the nature of the federal system.

    For Obama to "affirm" states' rights -- look at his actual words, the way you urge readers to read in every other case, including, say, when you make a huge deal about "seeking uranium from Africa" without naming the nation of Niger -- is a statement of fact, not a statement of preference. He didn't use the important word "should."

    If a politician vociferously opposed to the death penalty made a statement about how states have made their own decisions on implementing the death penalty, would he be "affirming states' rights" by noting accurately the state of affairs?

    You are wrong on this. Blatantly wrong. Wrong in a way that hinges upon reading actual words and not mind-reading their implications. Wrong in a way that you deplore in others. Physician, heal thyself.

  8. And, for that matter, you cite, even in bold, Capeheart's comment: "Look, this idea that the president is punting to the states, I think, is wrong. The states, as I said, they set the qualifications, but they also say who can marry."

    Did you consider that Capeheart might be right? That it's not "scripted" but, you know, actually true? And that your complaint is a matter of your own dogged commitment to an ill-considered misinterpretation of the clear content of the Obama statement?

    Would it hurt that badly if, just once, you actually reconsidered a single judgment, rather than clinging like grim death to your idiosyncratic ideas of The One Right Way To Speak In Politics?

  9. Really? Biden was "frog-marched into the Oval, where he was made to repent"?

    How does Bob know?

    We have no idea!

    1. It sounds like a "novel," doesn't it?

  10. Whether Obama was serious or courageous is not a problem, because the msm has frame.. them as improbable perspectives. There is proof that the move was brave, Observe the negative responses across the country. There are few voices of reason & plenty of attempts to manipulate perception. As one might expect, the conclusion is as usual that Obama cannot ..o anything right. It's always evil motivation, wrong i..eas, improper responses, poor timing, inexperience, gran.., ego, weakness, etc. Nausea in the extreme. It's possible, I suppose, that POTUS was potty traine..
    poorly, but I know I wasn't there.

  11. If one assumes negative motivation, he'll be right eighty percent of the time. It's important to note that it isn't "all" of the time.

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