The Accidental Reactionary

On same-sex marriage, Bush failed the public and himself


In a small Texas church in 1977, a young man named George W. Bush married a young woman named Laura Lane Welch. Their marriage changed them both. "She is the steel in his back," a reporter who knew them told CNN.com in 2001. "She is a civilizing influence on him."

A civilizing influence: If marriage's magic—for individuals, for couples, for communities, for countries—were to be reduced to a phrase, that would be it. If President Bush were asked what was the single most important day of his life, I imagine he might choose, not the day he was chosen president, nor the day his twin daughters were born, but the day he united his life with Laura Welch's. Marriage civilizes, comforts, nourishes. Possibly no man in the country knows this better than Bush.

I hope, then, that it was with some measure of agony that, on February 24, he called for the Constitution to be amended to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman. At that moment, the occupant of the office once held by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln declared that millions of Americans should be forever denied what is, after freedom itself, the greatest blessing of civic life: the opportunity to marry the person you love.

Now, I am not to be trusted in this matter. I am gay, coupled, and an advocate of same-sex marriage, thus condemned to view Bush's announcement through a scrim of disappointment and anger. Still, when I do my best to set my bias aside, and with the benefit of two weeks' cooling off, it seems to me that Bush's announcement amounted to a failure of moral and political vision, of empathy and imagination, that is symptomatic of a larger decline of his presidency.

Bush is no bigot. He is said to treat his gay acquaintances with kindness, and he is in good company in opposing same-sex marriage. A robust majority of the public is against gay marriage, as are most leading Democrats and 3,000 years of Western tradition. To tar everyone who rejects the idea as bigoted is to smear millions of Americans who wish their gay fellow-citizens no ill.

Bush, however, not only rejects gay marriage. He also opposes (though would not federally ban) civil union, as the nonmarital legal recognition of gay unions is often called. In his view, gay couples should have no formal legal status or protection of any kind.

More: In the course of his speech, as indeed in the course of his presidency, the word "gay" or "homosexual" did not pass his lips. He had nothing to say about the people to whom he would deny the irreplaceable blessings of marriage, and nothing to say specifically to them. It was as if a politician, a century ago, had announced his support for an amendment that would forever ban women from voting in any election on U.S. soil, and had done so in a speech carefully crafted to avoid mentioning women or even using a feminine pronoun. The message of Bush's omission, intended or otherwise, must surely be: Gay Americans are of no interest or concern to this president. Gay couples are invisible.

Perhaps Bush is morally myopic, a Mr. Magoo who sees gay people only when he physically collides with them. More likely, he takes the view that homosexuality is a personal and private idiosyncrasy, indeed a sin, of which public policy should take no formal notice. Gay couples, in this view, should feel free to draw up private contracts and wills of whatever sort they please, but they should go unnoticed by law and public policy.

Surely, if he stopped to think about it, Bush would realize that marriage conveys a host of benefits that no interpersonal contract can provide. He must be aware that only marriage can protect spouses from having to testify against one another under oath. (How, I wonder, would Bush feel knowing his wife could be subpoenaed as a witness against him by the next Kenneth Starr?) He must be aware that a bequest to a legally "unrelated" beneficiary is easily challenged by greedy or vindictive relatives. He must be aware that marriage is no mere legal contract between two individuals; it is a promise that spouses make not just to each other but to their community and in their community's eyes.

When I gave a speech a few months ago, I was surprised to find my host not in attendance. When I asked why, I learned he was at home taking care of his dying male partner. Bush, apparently, sees neither nobility nor public benefit in this union. Apparently he sees no union at all. Just individuals doing their thing. Nothing to bother himself about.

There is another Bush, the one who grappled with the ethics of stem-cell research in 2001, the one who in that case delivered a national address exquisitely weighing the moral claims of well and sick and born and unborn. Contrast that with the cool five minutes or so he gave same-sex marriage, the studied omission of any concern for the moral claims or welfare of 10 million or more gay Americans, and the refusal to offer them civil unions or any other consolation for their disenfranchisement. However intended, his performance was the most callous by an important American public official since the days of segregation.

The failure of moral imagination was exceeded, if that was possible, by the failure of political imagination. At his best, Bush in the past has shown an unusual facility for finding new ways out of old boxes. Refusing to choose between unacceptable alternatives, he shifts the paradigm instead. After September 11, he recognized right away that long-standing American policy for the Arab world was obsolete. In the Middle East, when told he had to accept unending conflict or bestow a state upon the likes of Yasir Arafat, he chose neither, instead linking Palestinian statehood to Palestinian democratization. It was this Bush who promised, for a while, the most creative and generative presidency since the days of FDR and Truman—so much so, that I called him "the accidental radical" in these pages.

But then there is the Bush who shruggingly signed an expensive and reactionary farm bill, a much more expensive if not quite so reactionary Medicare expansion, a command-and-control campaign finance law straight from the 1970s. There is the Bush who in January proposed, despite burgeoning deficits, an increase for the National Endowment for the Arts, a pleasant frivolity that sprays a mist of federal subsidy into a torrent of private funding for the arts and entertainment. And now the gay-marriage ban.

Americans haven't made up their minds about gay marriage and don't want to be rushed, either by liberal courts or by conservative Constitution-amenders. Most Americans, including many conservatives, believe the matter should be settled at a deliberate pace by the several states. The U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to impose one state's gay marriages on the whole country, but if Bush wanted to be sure, he might have proposed an amendment saying, for instance, "Nothing in this Constitution requires any state or the federal government to recognize anything other than the union of one man and one woman as a marriage." In that or some other way, he might have transcended the all-or-nothing choice presented to him by religious conservatives. He might thereby have poured water on the fires of the culture war.

Instead he chose gasoline. If extremism means opting for the most extreme alternative available, Bush is objectively an extremist. The most important portion of his February 24 announcement was this sentence: "Furthermore, even if the Defense of Marriage Act is upheld, the law does not protect marriage within any state or city." Translation: Preventing federal courts from pre-empting the states is not enough. On not a single square inch of U.S. territory can even one same-sex marriage ever be allowed, even if all the people in the relevant jurisdiction want it and even if no other jurisdiction would be required to accept it. In a country with a three-century tradition that wisely leaves domestic law to states and localities, Bush's proposed amendment amounts to ruthless totalism: scorched earth.

Bush is by temperament no extremist, especially on cultural issues; and when he thinks his way through a problem and knows his own mind, he is unafraid of activists who demand their way or the highway. What remains is to guess that Bush caved in to extremism on same-sex marriage because he failed to engage. Increasingly he seems to make conventional choices within a political environment that he accepts as a given. The gay-marriage failure is the latest in a series of decisions suggesting political senescence.

What a pity if the imagination that once characterized Bush at his best is sputtering out, giving way to the politics of palliation and placation. What a shame to see the accidental radical become an accidental reactionary.

You may also be interested in my new book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, available March 19.