Obama, Lincoln, and Gay Rights

[A. Serwer]

Sean Wilentz's lengthy book review of several Lincoln biographies isn't up on The New Republic's website yet, [actually it is, my bad] but his criticism of several books on Lincoln--and his general objection to the "two Lincolns" narrative that rejects the fact that Lincoln was anti-slavery to begin with, may offer some insight into President Obama's perplexing stances on gay rights.

Wilentz objects to an academic trend he sees as priviledging radicals over politicians, which he feels fails to take into account the exigencies of politics and what brilliant politicians are able to accomplish. More specifically, in one part of the review, he takes Skip Gates to task for taking Lincoln's words at face value only when it suits his preconcieved narrative of who Lincoln was:

He takes Lincoln's words at face value when it suits his own arguments--such as his remarks to the Chicago ministers in September 1862 about black military incompetence--but he is unable to see Lincoln for what his finest biographers have shown he was: a shrewd leader who could give misleading and even false impressions when he wanted to do so, and made no public commitments until the moment was ripe.

Lincoln made a number of statements, that, viewed out of context, would cause us to question his commitment to ending slavery, most notably his statement, responding to liberal Republican editor Horace Greeley that he was determined to save the Union whether it meant freeing all of the slaves or freeing none of them. Wilentz points out that this statement was meant to shore up Lincoln's right flank during the election, but did not actually contradict his anti-slavery views or goals--Lincoln had already secretly begun drafting the Emancipation Proclaimation.

What Obama "privately believes" about gay rights has been the subject of great speculation, and I think there's reason for that. We are, I think, if only by virtue of greater access to information, far more scrutinizing of what politicians say. So it's worth noting again that Obama's position on gay marriage, which TNC parsed the other day, doesn't actually preclude Obama eventually supporting marriage equality:

I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.

This is at least as noncomittal about the extension of secular marriage rights to gays as Lincoln's statement was about emancipation. And yet it gives the impression that Obama is opposed, which may be precisely what it is meant to do.

It's possible that I am parsing out of wishful thinking, so I'm going to quote from Obama's speech the other night:

So this story, this struggle, continues today -- for even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and will not -- put aside issues of basic equality. (Applause.) We seek an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love.

And I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

Like Lincoln's statements on slavery, these statements give contradictory impressions, but they are not, in matter of fact, contradictory. Obama's invocation of black rights and "basic equality" cannot be read as anything other than a rhetorical endorsement of full rights for the LGBT community.

It's worth noting that Lincoln was, as Wilentz writes, pretty adept with the racist joke or occasional n-bomb on the campaign trail. It was a different time, and Lincoln could use bigotry to maneuver himself into a favorable position in a way in which Obama can't or shouldn't. Likewise, it's possible for us to divine in hindsight that Lincoln's anti-slavery ambitions preceded his presidency, and that they were in fact sincere, because of how much he accomplished. Obama really hasn't done anything yet to where his cautiousness on gay rights can be read as part of a larger political strategy. That administration's frustrating foot-dragging on DADT in defiance of public opinion may have to do with internal administration politics, or it may be an indication that everything I am reading into his stance is wrong. At the same time, his incremental moves--extension of federal benefits to same sex couples, appointing John Berry to the Office of Personnel Management--mirror Lincon's baby steps towards emancipation and recruitment of black soldiers.

But I think it's possible, indeed probable, that Obama's slow progress on gay rights may be the kind of political maneuvering Lincoln displayed prior to the Emancipation Proclaimation or the recruitment of black soldiers. Earlier, TNC wrote this:

I've heard it said, many times, on this board that Obama is actually pro-gay marriage, but that he can't come out all the way. If that's the case, then we must conclude that he is lying about his stance. Moreover, he's invoking his relationship with religion, and his God, in that lie. Perhaps worse, he isn't being fully honest with the very audiences he wants credit for addressing--the very audiences, that by his logic, would most benefit from that honesty.

Wilentz writes that current trends in history privilege "idealists who they imagine were unblemished by expedience and compromise" rather than the "scheming, self-aggrandizing political professionals" who are decisive in "the achievement of America's greatest advances."

I think he has a point. We love radicals because they can afford to be honest, they can afford not to compromise. Preferring the radicals over the schemers makes us feel better about ourselves, but if we're being honest we'll admit that there is more of the schemer in our radical heroes than we would like to believe, MLK was not merely an idealist. But honesty is not necessarily a virtue in a schemer or a politician, except when it can be used in pursuit of a larger goal. It is the job of public voices and radicals to be honest--it is the job of politicians to create favorable political circumstances by all available, appropriate means and seize the opportune moment.

Now maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe Obama is merely two-faced, and there is no skillful maneuvering here. I'm certainly not arguing that advocacy organizations should cease pressuring him. I just think it's not that far fetched that Obama, like his hero, sees himself as  carefully laying the groundwork for full equality and that he genuinely believes that someday, we will judge him favorably "not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps."

UPDATE: I should acknowledge, that at the end of his essay, Wilentz spends a great deal of time explaining how Obama isn't Lincoln. I think this is basically a straw man--I'm not arguing above that Obama is "like" Lincoln but rather that he may be imitating some of his methods. What's really ironic, I suppose, is that Wilenz attacks Obama for disdaining politics during his campaign in the same manner as academic historians, while practicing the same dirty politics all along, in order to achieve his goal of winning the primary. Forgive me, but isn't that the exact kind of thing Wilentz argues effective politicians do and why it makes them able to accomplish great things? If anyone has failed to misunderstand politics in the manner Wilentz describes, it isn't Obama.

Also, isn't it about time to get over Hillary Clinton losing?