In the fall of 1912, as his campaign for president entered its final stage, Woodrow Wilson was speaking in Brooklyn when he was asked for his opinion on women’s suffrage. The issue was very much in the political ether, but Wilson had declined to take a stand on it. According to John Milton Cooper’s excellent biography of the twenty-eighth president, he responded by insisting that it was “not a question that is dealt with by the national government at all.” The woman who had asked the question was apparently displeased by this blatant dodge. “I am speaking to you as an American, Mr. Wilson,” she retorted.
I am speaking to you as an American: It was a wonderful rebuke, one that anticipated the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders who would not rail against America but instead demand to be fully part of it. Wilson, however, was unmoved. And his slippery treatment of women’s suffrage—like his slippery approach on matters of race—did not end once he was in the White House. Running for reelection four years later, he was still playing the same exasperating game. That year, the Democrats did not endorse a constitutional amendment providing for women’s suffrage but, instead, called on the states to extend voting rights to women. Such a half-measure looks cowardly in retrospect, of course; but it also looked cowardly at the time. In November 1916, The New Republic excoriated Wilson for his weak stand on the issue. During his reelection campaign, TNR wrote, Wilson had told a group of suffragists that “[h]e was with them,” even as “he confessed to a ‘little impatience’ as to their anxiety about method.” From this, the magazine concluded that the president had “at best a vague, benign feeling about [the issue], and no conviction whatever that woman suffrage was creating a national situation which called for thorough sincerity, nerve and will.”
An evasive stance on a controversial civil rights issue from a liberal president; an insistence that the issue is primarily local, rather than national, in character; a complete failure of sincerity, nerve, and will: If these things sound familiar in 2010, it is because Barack Obama is taking exactly the same approach on gay marriage.
My colleague James Downie has assembled a fascinating timeline of Obama’s statements on gay marriage over the past 14 years, stretching from 1996 to earlier this month, when the White House responded to a judge’s ruling on Prop 8 by reiterating that it opposes same-sex marriage. What the timeline shows is a pattern that can only be described as illogical and cynical. Obama argues that he is against gay marriage while also opposing efforts like Prop 8 that would ban it. He justifies this by saying that state constitutions should not be used to reduce rights. (His exact words: “I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you’re playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about.”) Obama appears to be saying that it is fine to prohibit gay people from getting married, as long as the vehicle for doing so is not a constitution. Presumably, then, he supports the numerous states that have banned same-sex marriage through other means, without resorting to a constitutional amendment? If so, he might be the only person in the country to occupy this narrow, and frankly absurd, slice of intellectual terrain. Obama has also said he favors civil unions rather than gay marriage because the question of where and how to apply the label “marriage” is a religious one. This argument makes even less sense than his stance on state constitutions, since marriage, for better or for worse, is very much a government matter.
Obama and those around him seem unaware that all of this is a problem; a look at some of the lessons from Wilson’s experience might help to clarify why they ought to reconsider. The first lesson is that history does not look kindly on this type of presidential conduct. Wilson is today remembered as a near-great president, but his indifference on questions of gender and race is more than a bit unflattering in retrospect. Second, like Wilson, Obama is running out of time to stay ahead of history. In 1912, women’s suffrage was hardly an outlandish cause; one of the three major presidential contenders that year, Teddy Roosevelt, came out in favor of it, even as Wilson remained mum. Similarly, on gay marriage, Obama is now to the right of Laura Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, according to a new CNN poll, 52 percent of the American people.
Third, there is the problem of the example Obama is setting for the rest of the world. According to Cooper, when Wilson eventually did endorse the women’s suffrage amendment, on January 9, 1918, it was at least partly because of foreign policy. “As one of the Democrats [who had spoken to Wilson that day] recalled two weeks later, the president told them that passing the amendment would send the right message to the world and would acknowledge women’s service to the nation,” Cooper explains. Months later, addressing the Senate on the issue, Wilson cited the “unusual circumstances of a world war in which we stand and are judged in the view of our own people and our own consciences but also in the view of all the nations and peoples.” The point, it seemed, was that you could not wage war in the name of democratic ideals while barring half your population from voting. Obviously, the lesson here does not map perfectly onto contemporary politics—Obama would not exactly increase his popularity in the Muslim world by endorsing gay marriage—but neither does it make sense to think of gay marriage as completely disconnected from international affairs. Obama has said that he wants to restore American moral leadership in the world. But how can he claim the mantle of moral leadership when we are being outpaced by so many countries and so many foreign leaders on one of the central civil rights issues of our time?
The final lesson from Wilson is that what a president says and does matters. The day after Wilson’s January 9 statement, the House endorsed women’s suffrage by two votes. Wilson, albeit years late to the cause, would go on to lobby senators and, eventually, the governor of Tennessee, which became the final state to ratify the nineteenth amendment. Obama, meanwhile, seems to have convinced himself that he can’t make a difference on gay marriage, so why wade into the issue? But, while he may not realize it, Obama is already leading on gay marriage; he is just leading in the wrong direction. Every time Obama or a surrogate reiterates his position, it reinforces the idea that gay marriage is a bit too scary for the political mainstream. Worse, Obama’s stance seems to be a way of conveying to the country that he knows a lot of people still aren’t completely comfortable admitting gays and lesbians as full participants in American life, and that this is OK because he isn’t either. It is about the most cynical gesture you can imagine from an allegedly liberal leader—and we deserve better. I am speaking to you as an American, Mr. Obama.
Richard Just is executive editor of The New Republic.