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Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter defends Barack Obama’s flip-flopping on gay marriage

Tuesday, July 1, 2008
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HH: To discuss some of the latest events in the political arena, joining me now, Newsweek’s own Jonathan Alter. You can watch him a lot on MSNBC, and you can read his column in Newsweek, and you can read his book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope at the beach this summer. It’s a wonderful read. Jonathan, welcome back, I hope it’s not a million degrees in New York.

JA: You know what? I’m in Aspen, Colorado, Hugh, at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

HH: That is a much cooler place to be, I suspect.

JA: Yeah, it’s got a lot of interesting people here from all different walks of life, a lot of IQ, present company excluded, or at least my company.

HH: How long does that go on for?

JA: About six days.

HH: How fun. I was just in Colorado myself, and it’s a great place to be in the summertime. You picked well. Jonathan, I want to talk to you first about gay marriage, because the San Francisco Chronicle this afternoon ran this story – Obama Opposes California Same Sex Marriage Ban, which McCain supports, and it begins this way. Democratic Senator Barack Obama has announced his opposition to a November ballot measure that would ban same sex marriage in California, a move that puts gay rights front and center in the 2008 presidential campaign. In a letter to San Francisco’s Alice B. Toklas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered Democratic club Sunday, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said, he opposed, “divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts in other states.” Earlier this week, McCain went the other way. And then the Chronicles writes, “Obama is skating gingerly past his previous position on the issue. I’d call it a flip-flop. What do you call it, Jonathan Alter?

JA: Well, why is it, tell me again why it’s a flip-flop?

HH: He had previously said, I’ll quote the Chron, “the Illinois Senator had said repeatedly that he believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman.”

JA: Yeah, but that’s not a flip-flop, Hugh. There’s a difference between believing it should be between a man and a woman, and believing that we should be messing around with our state constitutions. I mean, it’s like saying that if somebody opposes abortion, but then also decides that they’re against an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning abortion, that they’ve flip-flopped. They haven’t. They still oppose abortion.

HH: Well then, the Chronicle went on to write, Jonathan, “When the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same sex marriage in May, Obama released a carefully nuanced statement saying that he respected the Court’s decision, believed states should make their own decisions on marriage, and will continue to fight for civil unions as president.” Of course, the state will make its own decision, as it votes on a constitutional amendment. So I guess he’s not in favor of California making its own decision.

JA: Well, that, I think, is closer to a logical critique of his carefully nuanced argument here. Look, he’s walking a fine line on a lot of these issues, on national security issues that relate to the FISA Court. You know, he came out, to the chagrin of a lot of liberals, in favor of the bill that granted immunity to the telephone companies. He’s now been skating around some on these faith-based organizations, which just yesterday, he basically came out for the equivalent of President Bush’s position on faith-based initiatives, and was praised for it by President Bush’s former advisor on faith-based initiatives, John DeIullio. So you know, on a series of issues, he is being political. He’s a politician, always has been. I think it’s in a lot of ways, unhappy news for conservatives, because they were kind of hoping he would go out there as an unabashed liberal more in line with his voting record. And instead, he’s kind of tacking back and forth, and making himself a bit more of an elusive target.

HH: Well, now that he’s embraced gay marriage, do you think that gay marriage is that big of an issue in the fall?

JA: I don’t believe he has embraced gay marriage, Hugh. I think that’s a misrepresentation of his position. I really do. I think you’re not, I’m not trying to say he’s not being political about it, because he is. But you know, it parallels my position. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and that it is, and I support civil unions, but I strongly oppose using state constitutions or the federal Constitution to try to enshrine these kinds of decisions in state or federal law. I believe that they should be left to religions institutions to make these determinations, and it’s a matter of personal conscience. It’s the same thing…

HH: Jonathan…

JA: …as flag burning. Let me just finish the point quickly here, Hugh. I strongly object to flag burning. I really do. My father’s a World War II war hero. He strongly opposes flag burning. But he equally strongly opposes a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning. So I think it’s really unfair to say that Obama’s position is in support of gay marriage.

HH: Well, I have to disagree with you, because when the California Supreme Court says that gays shall enjoy all the rights of marriage, and gays are getting married in California, and that it’s a Constitutional right, then the only way to reverse that is via a Constitutional amendment. And to be in favor of the amendment is to be in favor of traditional marriage, and to be opposed to the amendment is to be in favor of the status quo, which is the Constitutionalizing of gay marriage. So…

JA: That’s just a cartoon version of what for a lot of people is an issue that you know, they have a personal view on. And then they have another view that relates to, you know, how much we should be in mucking around in our constitutions. And they’re not mutually exclusive, those positions.

HH: Well I think, Jonathan, they are, because you’re running for president, and a whole bunch of the country does not like gay marriage, and here is the issue on a ballot, and instead of saying that’s up to the people of California to decide, I would personally vote for it, I am personally against it, he has come out and said no, I’m against that amendment, and it should not pass.

JA: And it’s a ballot initiative. He’s trying to take a clear position and not be wishy-washy on that particular issue. Instead of temporizing on the ballot initiative, he says he’s against it. But it’s just, it’s just not right, it’s unfair for the reasons I explained, the analogies I used, to say that just because one opposed a Constitutional amendment, that therefore, they support gay marriage. It’s not logically consistent.

HH: Well, as his wife announced on…I have to disagree with you.

JA: In other words, are you saying, Hugh, that I don’t oppose flag burning?

HH: I am saying that if you come out in this situation, where gay marriage is now the law of the land…

JA: Hugh, let me, please, I love debating with you, but try to go with my analogy. Are you saying I don’t oppose flag burning?

HH: No, I think your analogy’s very useful, but it doesn’t affect…

JA: What?

HH: By the way, I have exactly the same opinion as you do, I’m opposed to flag burning, and I’m against a Constitutional amendment. That’s not, however, if a Constitutional amendment is on the ballot in California to say I will ban or not ban flag burning, if Barack Obama comes out against that amendment, he’s coming out in favor of the right to burn flags. So he’s coming out in favor of the right of gay marriage. And that’s what he’s come out for, is the right for gays to get married.

JA: Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. This issue came up, a federal Constitutional amendment. You just said you have my position. Are you coming out in favor of the right to burn flags if you oppose that Constitutional amendment?

HH: I am in favor of the right to burn flags. I am in favor of the right to burn flags. You betcha.

JA: Okay, all right.

HH: I am not in favor of the right for gays to get married. Barack Obama is in favor of the right for gays to get married.

JA: All right, I just wanted to make sure I understood your position.

HH: But you do understand that it doesn’t work? I mean, it was tricky, it was very good, but it doesn’t work, because if you’re in favor of the rights of gays to get married, you have to go in front of the people of the United States and say don’t worry, that’s the way it’s going to be, and it won’t matter. And I don’t think you can have it both ways and say marriage ought to be for a man and a woman when…I think the right of the flag to be burned out there is available to people, and I wouldn’t change the Constitution.

JA: Look, let me just try to, for the sake of argument, rather than thinking about this in terms of who can clobber who in a political context, I mean, I’m just trying to think through my own position. I’m married, I want my children to be married. I believe that marriage is an ancient institution that is between a man and a woman, and that’s not my, I’m not trying to be political here, that’s my view. So I think that when homosexuals get married, they should be called civil unions. But I also, and in this sense, I think maybe I’m a little bit more libertarian than you. I really don’t care what they want to call it. I call it something different. If they want to call it marriage, I’ve got a lot of other important things to worry about that relate to, you know, many, many other issues.

HH: But Jonathan…

JA: It’s really no skin off my back.

HH: I understand your position.

JA: Is there really any skin off your back if they go get married and call it marriage?

HH: I understand your position. Actually, I’m just looking for clarity.

JA: Yeah.

HH: I think that Obama has taken a radical position, vis-à-vis 90% of the American population.

JA: Is it really different than your sort of quasi-libertarian position?

HH: Yes, absolutely it’s different from mine, because I believe marriage…

JA: Why? What is it to you, Hugh? What is it to you, Hugh, if a couple of homosexuals go, and they go down to city hall, and they tie the knot. And even though you and I like to think of what they’ve done as a civil union, they, for their own personal reasons, want to call it marriage? Is that really going to ruin your day?

HH: Crafty, Jonathan, long conversation, and that’s a straw man. The issue is to me very, very clear.

JA: What straw man? Does it ruin your day? Does it really…what is it to you?

HH: But that’s making it trivial.

JA: It’s not trivial.

HH: What matters is that marriage ought to be defined by legislators, not courts.

JA: No, you’re taking the statist position, which is unusual for a libertarian.

HH: I’m not. I’m taking the position of Western civilization for 3,000 years, Jonathan.

JA: No, no. No, the position of Western civilization is that these things are done by religions and…

HH: Oh, nonsense. Oh, Jonathan, we don’t have enough time, but go back to the Aspen people and ask them whether or not Obama has endorsed gay marriage, because unless they say yes, you ought to leave there right away, because they’re hopelessly confused. Jonathan Alter, always a pleasure, even though it’s good to mix it up with him. The Defining Moment, Jonathan’s book, a very good book.

End of interview.

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