Frank Rich devoted his Memorial weekend column to smacking Barack Obama for going mute on the big equal rights issue of his presidency. The promised repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has vanished down the rabbit hole, and as a succession of states has legalized same-sex marriage, nary a peep has issued from the White House. I even suspect that Hillary Clinton’s decision to provide all domestic partners (same-sex and otherwise) of State Department employees with the same benefits as married ones was made now in order to protect the administration from getting embroiled in a congressional fight on the issue. Last week Rep. Harold Berman dropped plans to push legislation doing the same after learning that Clinton would act.
“This is a civil rights moment,” Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson told Rich, “and Obama has not yet risen to it.” No doubt, the cause of gay rights has taken a back seat to the fierce urgency of rescuing the economy and getting health care passed. But Obama’s evasiveness can also be viewed in wider context, as another way in which he is following the example of Abraham Lincoln. For a reminder of just how mixed Lincoln’s performance on slavery was, take a look at Garry Wills’ piece in the current New York Review. Frederick Douglass, whom Lincoln’s prevarications drove crazy, gave this assessment:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy,
cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his
country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was
swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
In due course, Lincoln stepped up and became the Great Emancipator. In due course, the tardy and indifferent Obama may step up too.