We have all become political hacks. We are all so engaged in the back and forth of politics, the jot or tittle of the process, the meaningless cable chatter of it all, the sameness of it all, be it conservative or liberal, that we lose sight of principle and of right and wrong. This is how we hardly noticed that basically all of American politics acquiesced in the demonization of gays and lesbians.
This occurred to me last week when The New York Times published an account of how in 1996 President Clinton, in the dead of a Washington night, signed the odious Defense of Marriage Act, a bill whose very title was an Orwellian lie. The bill had ripped through the House and Senate, garnering yeas from all but one House Republican and most Democrats. On the GOP side of the aisle were surely men and women who were voting their heartfelt ignorance and irrational fear, but on the Democratic side were those who were simply holding their noses — selling out, as we used to say.
Oh, there were exceptions. Jane Harman, who in 1994 had won her Republican-leaning California congressional district by a mere 812 votes, denounced it from the floor and voted a principled nay. On the Senate side, Virginia's Chuck Robb put his career on the line and became the only Southerner to vote against this piece of homophobic nonsense. Then ... then nothing. Clinton signed the thing at 1 a.m. on a Saturday when all of Washington, with the possible exception of the always restless Newt Gingrich, was asleep. In a sense, the town never woke up.
Around this time, an odd thing began to happen: On television, gays were starting to commonly appear, and when they did, they seemed no different than heterosexuals. On Roseanne, Will & Grace, Glee, The New Normal and other shows, gays have been depicted as, well, normal. The archetypal threat of yore, the alleged despoiler of innocent youth, turns out to be a virtual Rotarian — so ordinary, so prosaic, so bloody boring.
But it was not just sitcoms that moved the nation. In those few places that permitted same-sex marriage, men and men and women and women were emerging from city halls brimming with happiness. Some of them had been couples for decades. You could not help but be moved. The super lawyer David Boies was. It was these pictures that prompted him to argue the case that he and Ted Olson took to the Supreme Court.
The society moved on but the politicians did not. They provided no leadership. Same-sex marriage was supposedly deeply unpopular. The political consultant Robert Shrum wrote in his book, No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner, that in 2004 Clinton advised his party's presidential nominee, John Kerry, to support the ban on same-sex marriage, which he refused to do. Clinton denies anything of the sort, but, nonetheless, he has changed his position. He now supports what he always believed and, a bit late, enjoys the comfy feeling of having his politics correspond to his principles.
As for me and most other pundits, we too moved on. A law whose purpose was to institutionalize the blackened heart of bigotry got no mention from us. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) almost annually would introduce his repeal measure, but it would go nowhere — as we savants wearily expected it would. The Republican Party, having exhausted its decency by freeing the slaves a while back, remained stubbornly opposed — and most Democrats preferred to play it safe.
Seemingly on their own, though, the polling numbers changed. In 2004, The Washington Post found that 49 percent of Americans were "strongly" opposed to same-sex marriage. By this March, the figure had plunged almost 20 points, to 30 percent. Other polls found similar results — an astonishing movement of public opinion that was happening around the same time the country was electing, and re-electing, its first black president. The culture was on the move.
Same-sex marriage will surely come. It is right. It makes sense. It is even romantic. When that day arrives, politicians and pundits will try to take their bows, but don't let them. They didn't lead; they followed. Hacks were praised by hacks who valued the process but ignored the principle.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.