What a month of May it’s been, huh? Let’s recap: Last week, Romney’s openly gay national security/foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned from the campaign amid disputed reports that he was pressured to stay in the background by anti-gay conservatives. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden came out in favor of marriage equality, which made everyone turn their eyes to President Obama and ask, “What about you?” Two days later, the voters in North Carolina voted overwhelmingly to enshrine a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution. The following day, the President announced he was in favor of homosexuals’ right to marry. And today, the Washington Post ran a profile of Mitt Romney’s prep-school years that features a vivid anecdote of the teenage Romney leading a posse of students to hold down John Lauber (who was not openly gay at the time, but definitely suspected of being so by his classmates) while the future Republican presidential nominee forcibly trimmed the kid’s bleached blond hair with a pair of scissors. Somehow, I don’t think the story of Romney saying “He can’t look like that! That’s wrong! Just look at him!” will go down alongside the one about Abraham Lincoln splitting logs.
Addressing Obama’s announcement first: Some critics aren’t giving him that much credit. They note that the timing was forced on him in some ways. Indeed, he has only come round to where he was back in 1996, when he backed gay marriage as a state legislator. He abandoned gay marriage in 2008 because it was politically expedient, and he is endorsing it now because it is politically expedient. That’s definitely not as inspiring as the conversion story that Obama is trying to frame it as.
Then again, so what if there’s an element of calculation in the timing of this announcement? No one becomes president without being able to calculate these things. And Obama has now boxed in Romney rather beautifully. Romney has called for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman, so the announcement makes him look like a pawn of the gay-haters among his base. If he tries to tack back to the middle, the Democrats will call him a flip-flopper and bring up his 1994 pledge to Log Cabin Republicans to be better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy. He’s stuck.
Furthermore, Obama’s course correction means his supporters no longer have to tie themselves in knots over the issue. The White House’s original position (gay people should have equal rights, but not marriage) was untenable, and Obama’s supporters were forced to play along and content themselves with signals like the administration’s refusal to defend DOMA. Now everybody’s clear on where the White House stands, and I’m sure the law professor in Obama would appreciate the intellectual clarity. Now it’s the Republican establishment who’s stuck with the untenable position (we don’t hate gay people, but they shouldn’t have equal rights). In fact, Chris Weigant at Huffington Post wondered if Biden’s stumble was a choreographed piece of theater. The way this week has played out for Obama’s re-election campaign, you do wonder.
Regardless, this president understands the symbolic power of both his words and his position in society. No U.S. president has ever expressed support for gay rights as forthrightly as Obama did. Even if his motives weren’t completely pure, Obama has helped millions of Americans merely by saying what he said.
Contrast what Obama’s words have done for him with what Romney’s words have done to him. The Post’s story makes him look like a thoroughgoing jerk, at a cultural moment when it’s particularly bad to be seen as a high-school bully. People do understand that high-school kids do stupid stuff, and that a teenager in 1965 shouldn’t be judged the same way as a middle-aged man in 2012. Romney could have defused the story had he owned up to his actions and said they were wrong in no uncertain terms. Instead, he issued a weak, fudging statement of apology, which is unfortunately what he seems to do in these situations. While Obama comes off in his interview like a person who’s changed his mind after some hard thinking on the subject, Romney comes off in his apology like a public figure whose words have been filtered through a publicist. (He refers to Lauber as “that individual.” Really, would it have killed him to mention the victim’s name?) Actually, forget the president for a second. Romney’s words pale beside those of the other students who took part in the bullying, who all seem properly remorseful over what they did. Romney, for his part, says he doesn’t even remember his actions toward Lauber. This might be true; maybe he feels so much guilt that he’s blocked the incident from his memory. Any other explanation indicates a chilling lack of soul in Romney, or at least the willingness to put it aside for political expediency.
Some conservatives are predictably crying foul, but the Post also sent a reporter to inquire about Obama’s teenage years, and he didn’t find any story about teenage Barack harassing gay kids. You know what? If you sent a reporter to inquire into my teenage years, you’d certainly dig up some unflattering stuff, but nothing of the magnitude of what Romney did to John Lauber. That’s because this story goes well beyond the parameters of harmless high-school pranking. Ultimately, this story isn’t about the presidential election or liberal and conservative attitudes towards homosexuality. It’s about how people should be treated. They don’t deserve to be treated the way Mitt Romney treated John Lauber because they’re gay, or look the part. This behavior was and is wrong, and though it may have been socially acceptable in 1965, it isn’t now. Mitt Romney needs to acknowledge that. Otherwise, the image of him as a gay-bashing tool is going to stick to him.
On a lighter note, Obama’s announcement brought on a number of celebrity tweets. My favorite one is from Patton Oswalt’s always-entertaining Twitter feed: “Seal Team Six just broke down my door and forced me to marry Stephen Fry. Damn you Obama!” Of course, in his subsequent tweets, Oswalt realizes that he could do a lot worse than Stephen Fry.