Thank you, George W Bush. You made my February.
It’s been a long dreary winter and there hasn’t been any really entertaining news to redeem it. Paul Martin bumbled his way through his first major scandal with an embarrassing mixture of outrage and compassion, feeling our pain like a poor man’s Bill Clinton. And his handling of same-sex marriage was just plain mealy-mouthed. Refer the “problem” to the Supreme Court for advice, eh? I mean really, how polite, how boring, how Canadian.
Fortunately, our friends to the south practise a more highly coloured form of politics, one always tinged by the fear of imminent moral meltdown.
The first sign of fun came when I heard that George W Bush was “troubled” by gay marriages. “Troubled”? The word suggests a gift for reflection not generally associated with the most celebrated MBA from Texas.
But apparently he really was troubled because he tried to deal with his discontent by banishing it to the outer darkness. On Feb 24, he announced that he wanted a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
This is not your usual legislated homophobia. My US history is a little shaky but to the best of my knowledge only one amendment has ever been repealed and that was prohibition. These things are designed to last.
Constitutional amendments are usually used to deal with big issues. You know, things like banning slavery (the 13th Amendment) or giving women the right to vote (the 19th Amendment).
They’re not usually aimed at a couple of nancy boys ambling up the aisle in search of the Ashley’s gift registry and a little instant respectability. A constitutional amendment is the legislative equivalent of the atom bomb. And dear old George wants to drop it on gay marriage. Isn’t that kind of like nuking Las Vegas because you don’t like powder blue tuxedos?
Of course we all know what’s going on here. Bush has an election coming up and he’s in trouble. The US economy is tanking, Iraq is a mess, the war on terror hasn’t abated and Bush may not be the best person to fight it. Turns out, Bush neglected some of his National Guard duties, whereas the man who is likely to be his opponent this November, Democratic Senator John Kerry, is a decorated naval officer.
Fortunately for Bush, Kerry is ripe for a smear campaign. He comes from the first US state to okay gay marriage and he’s one of the very few US politicians to have voted against the so-called Defence Of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the sole privilege of opposite-sexers. In US terms, that makes him a liberal. So, of course, the Republicans are hoping to pull another Dukakis, and smear Kerry in the same way that they smeared his Massachusetts colleague 16 years ago, only this time the accusation won’t be “soft on crime,” it’ll be soft on perverts.
In other words, Bush is pitching the 2004 presidential election as a sort of High Noon battle between right and wrong, with he and Kerry fighting it out for possession of the moral high ground. Expect Bush to robe himself in the mantle of virtue, family and tradition. Expect Kerry to change the subject.
If Kerry were smart, he’d play the civil rights card and do a few riffs on Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be a risky approach but it couldn’t be any more perilous than his current namby-pamby position. Kerry has said he’s against gay marriage but for civil unions, which is akin to standing on a banana peel and expecting it not to slip. Nobody – neither lesbians and gay men nor right wingers – is going to embrace his position and everybody is going to try to pull it out from underneath him.
The entertainment value of this struggle (I won’t call it a debate) cannot be denied. It has the satiric edge of a Tom Wolfe novel and the stagy melodrama of an allegorical pageant, Greed and Hypocrisy shadowing Justice and Virtue while Love and Beauty stand idly by.
Once the fire-and-brimstone preachers enter the fray and the cuddly queer couples tear up on Oprah (on cue), it’s going to be one heck of a show.
But the sheer battiness of US politics shouldn’t obscure the audacity of Bush’s bigotry. Changes to the constitution aren’t easy to make. Amendments must receive the assent of both houses of Congress (with a two-thirds majority) and at least three-quarters of the state legislatures. But once they’re law, they form part of what, for Americans, amounts to holy writ, informing legal, political and social policy for generations to come.
In proposing this amendment, Bush isn’t just putting forward a particular point of view, specific to a certain time and place. He’s trying to put it outside the reach of time and change. This is an attempt to elevate homophobia to the level of a first principle.
In his speech announcing the proposed amendment, Bush asked the American people to conduct the debate, “without bitterness or anger.”
Thank you, George W Bush. You made my February.