The civil rights lawyer Evan Wolfson, who is executive director of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, notes that the current stasis in Washington is a bit reminiscent of early 1963, when major triumphs in the black civil rights movement (Brown v. Board of Education, the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery bus boycott) had been followed by stalling, infighting and more violent setbacks. Victories were on their way but it took the march on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to galvanize John Kennedy and ultimately Lyndon Johnson into action. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson had to step up big time — and did — to prod Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (now under imminent threat from the Roberts Supreme Court).
So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South. When Obama invoked same-sex marriage in an innocuous joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner two weeks ago — he and his political partner, David Axelrod, went to Iowa to “make it official” — it seemed all the odder that he hasn’t engaged the issue substantively.