No, Biden Never Apologized to Obama for Getting Out Ahead on Gay Marriage

By Steve Clemons

Officially, the vice president was sorry for forcing his boss's hand -- but that "apology" never occurred and should never have been fabricated by White House staff.

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Pete Souza / White House

Vice President Joe Biden never apologized to President Obama for getting a "bit over his skis" in endorsing gay marriage before the president did -- and according to very senior White House sources, Obama didn't ask for or want an apology from Biden.

But google "Joe Biden", "apology", and "gay". On May 10, 2012 the official White House position -- as fed to the media -- was that Joe Biden apologized to the president.

What did happen is that Obama White House staff and campaign advisers went nuts and angrily denounced Biden for triggering what they thought would be a gay marriage political nightmare after comments on a Sunday morning talk show. Jay Carney, spokesman for the president and former spokesman for Biden, was widely acknowledged to be an exception to the tension and was working hard to bridge the mutually angry camps.

The heat was so strong that Biden staff scrambled to construct a gesture, which was a falsehood, that Biden apologized to the president for getting ahead of him on gay stuff. Biden staff put out word that Biden apologized -- but the truth of this matter is that never happened.

Or did it? Biden himself never said "sorry" to the president for his principled stand on the leading civil rights issue of the time. That would be a bit like Lyndon Johnson tucking it in and apologizing to JFK for being about nine steps ahead of the Kennedy clan on black civil rights in the country (which LBJ was).

However, when staff do something in the name of the principal for whom they work -- the question is whether that constitutes truth or not. In political or financial scandals, one of the techniques that politicians frequently use is to blame the transgression on an aide working for the pol, arguing that the principal had no knowledge of the illegal act. However, when things are going smoothly and well, Senators and Congressmen count on their aides to generate legislative and political successes for which they can take credit in their own name.

Very little in the Congressional Record for that matter, that is the digest of all that officially transpires on the floor of the House of Representatives and Senate, actually happens. There are tributes, commendations, long speeches that read as if they were given and which appear in the record -- but even a bleary-eyed replay of C-Span video will never yield the commentary being given. 

Typically, a legislative assistant will write a speech on some topic for his boss, a senator or representative, let's say on the subject of stopping Iran's nuclear program. Then the legislative director will approve the speech, and it will be transmitted by the staff member down to the floor clerk for inclusion in the Congressional Record. The senator or House member, on most occasions, never sees the commentary that will appear under his or her name. The system works on trust and the subordinated credentialing of staff who are given the authority to speak, think, and write in the name of their employer.

But when it comes to communications between the president of the United States and the vice president -- two people who meet regularly and privately and who have a 'deal' that Biden will be the last person in the room with Obama when major controversial issues, particularly of war and peace are discussed -- the rules should be different, particularly when it comes to personal beefs or grievances between them.

After Biden made his comments saying that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage on NBC's Meet the Press and a firestorm erupted over the gap between Biden's gay-hugging humanity and Obama's 'evolving' views on the matter, a senior White House official confided that Biden was one of the few people aware of the president's thinking on the matter -- and that what was at issue was not that Biden was out of sync with the president substantively but rather the political timing of the president's announcement.

In my view, Biden said nothing to change or disrupt Obama's position, which was then official White House policy -- but anyone who knows Joe Biden and his complete, authentic affection for both straight and gay couples, married or not, knows that he held the views which he articulated. Similarly, Vice President Cheney was ahead of George W. Bush on gay marriage -- arguing in contrast to Bush that states should govern the issue, not the federal government. 

The good thing is that no matter how they got there, both Joe Biden and Barack Obama now publicly endorse gay marriage. This was not true -- and was painfully apparent when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, introduced to standing ovation craziness by Sarah Jessica Parker at last year's Human Rights Campaign Dinner, blasted by implication President Obama's stance supporting civil unions over 'marriage.'

But at another level, when the history of gay rights and the Obama administration is written and the president's pivotal leadership on Don't Ask Don't Tell is explored, along with the Obama team's decision to abandon legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the president's important endorsement of gay marriage, it will be contestable (and wrong) to include the vignette that Biden apologized to Obama for a principled and important civil rights view that Biden personally held.

What happened and can be written is that Biden's staff apologized to Obama's staff -- and whether such fabricated truth is really truth is worthy of debate.

If he reads this or is pushed by the media or public on it again (think presidential debates) Obama should give a full-throated embrace of his vice president and his leadership on gay issues and should apologize for these staff theatrics that sullied Obama's step forward. 

Frankly, I applaud Obama's gay marriage evolution, but when he should have looked BIG for the move -- this apology kabuki backfired and made the president look smaller and more petty than he should have appeared at such a historic moment for his presidency and the nation.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/no-biden-never-apologized-to-obama-for-getting-out-ahead-on-gay-marriage/259790/