By Lisa Keen
WASHINGTON – It’s hard to call it a “snub” because it was a “White House event” and widely reported as such by the media; but the staging of President Bush’s endorsement of the “Marriage Protection Act” Monday lacked the sort of luster usually associated with presidential appearances.
It’s hard to call it “Custard’s Last Stand,” but the U.S. Senate “debate” Monday on the anti-gay floor amendment consisted largely a lone senator orating to the chamber’s clerks, two reporters, and a small, ever-changing galley of tourists.
For months, the head count foretold the fate of Senate Joint Resolution No. 1: it didn’t have enough votes to clear a procedural hurdle to be considered on its merits. It had 50 Republicans and two Democrats – four votes more than the last time it was considered, in 2004, but still a dozen votes short of the two-thirds it needed.
For weeks, the clamor of anti-gay activists had grown for more presidential and Republican leadership on the measure. And just three days before the second launch of the anti-gay marriage legislation in the Senate, it appeared they had won some attention: Reports were circulating that the president would stand next to the amendment’s major right-wing supporters in the prestigious Rose Garden to throw his weight behind the measure.
Instead, he stood in front of them, alone, at a podium on an empty dais in a small obscure room in the administrative office building adjacent to the White House. He looked uncomfortable. He read his remarks, kept a stiffened elbow grip on the podium, and shifted his weight noticeably.
Rather than shoulder to shoulder in the bright sunshine, the right-wing’s most prominent leaders were scattered at random throughout the small auditorium’s 140 seats, filled mostly by middle-aged women with blond-colored hair, a few black men with cleric collars, and several college-aged kids with glum expressions. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson sat in the middle aisle-middle row, waving to and being greeted by his admirers. The first of the auditorium’s seven rows were reserved for a dozen guests who took their places shortly before the president appeared.
A voice announced the President of the United States, a stage door opened, and the audience rose to its feet – silently – as the president strode to the podium. Just as he reached his mark, polite applause broke out and the president beckoned the audience to their seats.
“Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,” said the president. “You are here because you strongly support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and I am proud to stand with you.”
Whenever the president referred to “activist judges,” the crowd applauded.
They did not applaud when Bush reminded them “America is a free society which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens.”
“In this country, people are free to choose how they live their lives.” But when he added that “decisions about a fundamental social institution as marriage should be made by the people,” they applauded again.
President Bush and senators on both sides of the debate concerning the proposed anti-gay marriage amendment cited the same evidence for their positions: 19 states have approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, 45 states have passed either constitutional bans or state statutes banning legal rights and benefits to gay couples, and Congress overwhelmingly approved a federal statute allowing the federal government and each state to ignore any same-sex marriage approved by any individual state. For the supporters, it was evidence that the majority of Americans don’t want approval of same-sex marriages; for the opponents, it was evidence that a federal constitutional ban is not necessary.
But the federal and state measures banning the recognition of marriage for gay couples were in serious jeopardy, according to President Bush, because “activist judges,” in ruling on the constitutionality of such measures, were “imposing their arbitrary will on the people,” and “the only alternative left to the people is an amendment to the Constitution, the only law a court cannot overturn.”
“As this debate goes forward, every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity,” said Bush, again eliciting applause. “And all people deserve to have their voices heard.”
But, during his routine press briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that no openly gay people had even been invited to “have their voices heard” during a meeting of the president with supporters of the legislation prior to the public event. While Snow sought to explain the president’s willingness to stage an event for proponents of the legislation as a symbol of Bush’s genuine support for the bill, he characterized its timing as having been decided by the Senate leadership and having been “driven in many ways by the legislative calendar.”
“Whether it passes or not,” said Snow, “there have been a number of cases where civil rights matters have arisen on a number of occasions and they’ve been brought up for repeated consideration by the United States Senate and other legislative bodies.”
Snow’s characterization of the anti-gay marriage ban as a “civil rights matter” prompted questions from several reporters who sought clarification as to whether President Bush considers the proposal to be a civil rights issue. The press secretary, who has been on the job for less than a month, quickly sought to distract attention from his choice of words.
“What we’re really talking about here is an attempt to try to maintain the traditional meaning of an institution that has maintained one meaning for a period of centuries, and for -”
“Do you equate that with civil rights?” asked the reporter again.
“No, I’m just saying, I think – well, I don’t know,” said Snow, flippantly. “How do you define civil rights? …It’s your question.”
Snow was glib in his response to a question about whether there was a political motivation behind the Senate deliberation of the measure this week.
“Of course there’s a political dimension to it. There’s going to be a Senate vote on it, for heaven’s sake,” said Snow. “There’s naturally – there are political dimensions on both sides.” But he said President Bush still “feels strongly that marriage is an institution [that] has a fixed meaning that ought to be honored in American law.”
The debate yesterday was how strongly President Bush feels that way. Moving the event from the Rose Garden and away from the White House was “clearly a step down,” said Virginia Apuzzo, an openly gay activist who served as Assistant to the President in the Clinton administration and supervised the use of many White House facilities.
“When I saw it wasn’t in the Rose Garden, I thought perhaps it was raining on his parade and therefore shifted at the last moment,” said Apuzzo. While there were some dark clouds in the sky as the event was taking place, rain was not in the forecast. Apuzzo said she thinks the White House “must have gotten wind that the press was going to call this ploy for what it is.”