President Biden does very few interviews, but stopping by the “Daily Show” must have seemed like an easy layup.
To make it even easier, the guest host was someone who had worked in the Obama-Biden administration, Kal Penn. It doesn’t get cozier than that.
Biden, who was urging Penn to marry his longtime boyfriend, was asked about his evolution on marriage equality. In the course of this interrogation, the president described his “epiphany.”
Biden recalled an anecdote, as he often does, featuring his father.
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He was a high school senior being dropped off at school when he saw two men in suits kiss each other. “And I’ll never forget it, I turned and looked at my dad and he said ‘Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.’ It’s simple. No, I’m not joking. It’s simple, they love each other. And it’s never been, it’s never been, it’s just that simple, it doesn’t matter whether it’s same-sex or a heterosexual couple, you should be able to be married. So what is the problem?”
Now, even a sharp-edged comedian might have managed the obvious followup.
But as a few pundits have pointed out, the story hardly ends there.
Biden “went on to oppose same-sex marriage for a half-century as both a senator and vice president,” writes Mediaite’s Isaac Schorr.
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In 1996, Biden voted for Bill Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. It barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples, excluding them from numerous benefits and allowed states to refuse to recognize couples whose marriages were deemed legal in other states.
A decade later, Biden opposed then-President George W. Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage – his own bow to the right – but only on grounds that it was unneeded.
“Look,” Biden said on “Meet the Press,” “marriage is between a man and a woman, and states must respect that. Nobody’s violated that law; there’s been no challenge to that law; why do we need a constitutional amendment?”
Biden was hardly alone in his stance on marriage. In 2008, Barack Obama and his running mate made clear they did not support gay marriage.
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Four years later, the vice president famously preempted his boss, who had planned to announce a dramatic shift in his position. On “Meet the Press,” Biden said gay people deserved the same rights as everyone else: “It’s what all marriages at their root are about, whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.”
Obama quickly followed suit.
But, while it’s easy to accuse Biden of not living up to his beliefs for all those years, let me suggest another perspective.
In 1972, when Biden was elected to the Senate, gay marriage was not even a faint possibility in American politics. In fact, it was an era when many gays remained closeted for fear of losing their jobs.
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If Biden had started speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage, he would have been a one-term senator.
When Clinton took office two decades later, the idea of an acceptable compromise was that gays could serve in the military as long as they didn’t acknowledge they were gay – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
In 2000, it was deemed a huge victory when gays could form civil unions, granting them certain legal rights, under a Vermont Supreme Court order.
As recently as 2008, after a California court briefly made same-sex marriage legal in that state, voters overturned it in a referendum called Proposition 8.
It was only by 2012 that the political gravity had shifted to the point that it was safe for mainstream Democrats to embrace same-sex marriage. And since the Supreme Court legalized it in 2015, it has become a settled issue, accepted – if not loved – by most Americans.
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Biden obviously could have done more earlier, but politicians can’t get too far out ahead of public opinion if they want to enact change. As with his early stance on busing, he’s never wanted to become a card-carrying member of the party’s liberal wing.
That’s why he kept quiet for so long about his high school epiphany – not that his “Daily Show” pal would have been rude enough to point that out.
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