‘First Gay President’?

05.14.12

Media Reaction to Newsweek’s Obama ‘The First Gay President’ Cover

This week’s Newsweek declared Obama ‘the first gay president.’ From arguments that President James Buchanan was actually the first, to complaints about ‘the first ... president’ clichés, we rounded up some of the best—and harshest—feedback on the cover.

Before President Obama had even announced his support for same-sex marriage, Newsweek was expected to do something drastic.Time magazine’s cover, featuring a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old, stirred speculation over what Newsweek, having presumably cornered the market on controversial magazine covers, would do to one-up its competitor. A Newsweek spokesman even confirmed that after editor Tina Brown saw the Time cover, she laughed and said, “Let the games begin.” Sure enough, Brown and the rest of the Newsweek editors were able to come up with an idea that created just as much, if not more, controversy—and discussion—as Time’s: a cover featuring an image of Obama with a rainbow halo over his head, above the headline “The First Gay President.” Poynter argues that “Newsweek’s cover is provocative, fun to riff about, and a flag in the ground that says print journalism still matters. Kinda makes you hope the games continue, doesn’t?”

1. Jim Loewen at Salon

Loewen disagrees with Newsweek’s cover story, arguing that Obama is not the United States’ first gay president. Not only is he not gay, we’ve already had a gay president: James Buchanan, he writes. “There can be no doubt that James Buchanan was gay, before, during, and after his four years in the White House. Moreover, the nation knew it too—he was not far into the closet,” Loewen writes, pointing to letters between Buchanan and a friend in which he laments the move of his lover to Paris. “I have gone a wooing to several gentleman, but have not succeeded with any one of them,” reads the quote from Buchanan’s letter. “I feel that it is not good for a man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.” Loewen argues that the reason Americans don’t name Buchanan as our first gay president “is that we have a touching belief in progress ... Buchanan could not have been gay then, else we would not seem more tolerant now.” 

2. Eric Randall at The Atlantic Wire

As Andrew Sullivan himself acknowledged, the headline for his cover essay was not intended to be understood literally. Newsweek was not attempting to “out” Obama but rather was making a play on Toni Morrison calling President Bill Clinton “the first black president.” But Randall points out that this isn’t the first time that reference has been made. Obama has twice been called the first woman president: first in 2008, by Newsweek’s Martin Linsky, and then again by The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker in 2010. The argument in both cases was that Obama’s wisdom, values, and management style were similar to that of a female leader. In 2009 the Associated Foreign Press asked if Obama was the first Asian-American president while, the same year, Geraldo Rivera suggested he might be the first Hispanic president. Then, in 2011, New York magazine declared him  the first Jewish president. “Expectations were high that editor Tina Brown would do something typically attention-grabbing to mark this occasion, but this effort seems, well, cliché,” Randall writes. “It wasn’t going to be long before someone outed our first black, female, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian-American president as gay.”

3. Rick Klein at ABC News

While the “first ____ president” trope has been used before, never has “gay” been the fill-in word. And, as Klein points out, the significance of the cover lies in the fact that such an image of the Democratic president isn’t a terrifying thing for the party. “A move that any previous Republican candidate for president would have seen as a rainbow-wrapped gift has been met haltingly by the GOP’s standard bearer,” he writes. Instead, “the president has shifted on a major cultural issue where, polling suggests, demographics are on his side, if not necessarily politics. And the campaign has seen another week elapse where the Obama economy was not front and center.”

4. Brad Knickerbocker at The Christian Science Monitor

“Is Obama the ‘first gay president’?” Knickerbocker asks. More important, will it matter for the election? No, he suggests, citing several arguments that the excitement over Obama’s change of opinion on gay marriage does not eclipse economic concerns that seem to drive votes. “According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, Americans are growing more pessimistic about the economy, and handling it remains President Barack Obama’s weak spot and biggest challenge in his bid for a second term,” writes Knickerbocker. So perhaps the Newsweek cover’s biggest issue is its focus on a position of the president’s that is of little significance to the election.

5. Twitter

The surest sign of controversy is whether it consumes the Twitterverse, and on Monday, Twitter was all over this week’s Newsweek cover. Our favorite tweets disregard the president and ask what the first lady thinks about all this. @Indecision wrote, “Michelle Obama is going to flip when she sees that Newsweek cover,” and the Dennis Miller Show joked, “re Newsweek cover Wouldn’t Michelle tell you he’s the first Bi-President?”

6. Press Secretary Jay Carney

Amid all the speculation, analysis, and reaction surrounding the cover, what does the man himself think about being adorned with a rainbow halo and dubbed “the first gay president”? We’re not quite sure. On Monday morning, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dodged questions about how the president reacted to the Newsweek cover, saying he wasn’t sure if Obama had seen it.