05.11.12

Obama’s LBJ Moment with His Gay Marriage Endorsement

In an election year nearly 50 years ago President Johnson took a risky stand on a civil rights and triumphed. Historian Robert Dallek on the parallels with Obama’s gay marriage endorsement.

Vice President Biden’s surprising declaration of unqualified support for gay marriage seems to have forced President Obama into a public endorsement of a controversial social issue. It is difficult not to suspect that Biden’s pronouncement aimed to give the president some political cover. Vice presidents don’t usually stray so aggressively from a president’s wishes, especially in an election year when putting your boss in a difficult position could possibly cost you your job.

But at the end of the day, whatever the political maneuvering behind the president’s decision to come out decisively for something that excites considerable opposition, the more important fact is that Mr. Obama has taken a stand on a right that several states have rejected, including, most recently, North Carolina, an electoral battle ground that could make a difference in Obama’s reach for a second term.

Why was the president willing to take on this issue now when it could work against him in what promises to be a tough reelection fight? It could be that Obama campaign officials believe that very few opponents of gay marriage are going to vote for the president anyway—so why not boost and solidify his standing with liberals and some sympathetic independents whose enthusiasm for a second term may make a difference in the November out come?

It’s also possible that the publication of Robert Caro’s fourth volume on Lyndon Johnson, which includes a discussion of LBJ’s courageous stand on the 1964 civil rights bill, triggered President Obama’s decision to come out for a gay right that he sees as long overdue. What makes the Johnson analogy so plausible is that, like Johnson, Obama is taking this on in an election year.

When Johnson decided to fight for passage of the law John F. Kennedy had put before Congress in June 1963 banning segregation in places of public accommodation, he believed he was taking considerable political risks. The law promised to produce a sea change in race relations across the South, overturning social arrangements dating from the founding of the colonies.

He foresaw violence, bloodshed, public anarchy, economic dislocation, and defeat for him and the Democrats in the coming election.

As the bill moved through Congress, Johnson told Hubert Humphrey, its Senate sponsor, “The thing we are more afraid of than anything else is that we will have real revolution in this country when this bill goes into effect…. Unless we have the Republicans joinin’ us and helpin’ put down this mutiny, we’ll have mutiny in this goddamn country. So we’ve got to make this an American bill and not just a Democratic bill…. It doesn’t do any good to have a law like the Volstead Act [outlawing alcohol] if you can’t enforce it.”

When the bill became law in July 1964, Johnson remained fearful of an upheaval. He foresaw violence, bloodshed, public anarchy, economic dislocation, and defeat for him and the Democrats in the coming election. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred, but he was prescient about the consequences for his party across the old Confederacy. When press secretary Bill Moyers asked him why he wasn’t more upbeat about the passage and likely results of the civil rights law, Johnson told him: “Because, Bill, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.” Johnson made few smarter predictions about American politics in the course of his long public career.

Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage is hardly as consequential as Johnson’s legislative success on civil rights. Obama’s support is little more than a verbal gesture; he has no capacity to overturn state constitutional amendments or state referenda banning same-sex marriage that passed in thirty-one states all over the country. Only six states and the District of Columbia have enacted measures approving such unions. Nonetheless, it is no small action for a sitting president to have taken a stand in support of a social arrangement that clashes with traditional convictions about what constitutes “marriage.” Moreover, it could help stimulate court battles and national efforts to add an amendment to the United States Constitution, though the failure during a sixty-year struggle for an Equal Rights Amendment assuring gender equality offers little comfort to those eager to turn the issue into a national referendum.

Whatever the long-term legal prospects for same-sex marriage, President Obama’s willingness to put the matter front and center in an election year can at least make him a candidate for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.