It was the spring of 2007, back when Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency seemed quixotic at best. I’d seen Obama speak to a crowd and was impressed but wanted to see if what I’d seen from afar held up under closer scrutiny. So I asked to attend a private fundraiser in a tony apartment in Georgetown. I promised not to write anything. I just wanted to see the man up close and get a better sense of him and his character. At one point in the question-and-answer session, a woman looked him square in the eyes with what can only be called maternal grit. “My son is gay,” she said, and the room went suddenly quiet. “I don’t understand why you don’t support his right to marry the person he loves. It’s so disappointing to me.” Obama, without losing eye contact for a second, told her: “I want full equality for your son—all the rights and benefits that marriage brings. I really do. But the word ‘marriage’ stirs up so much religious feeling. I think civil unions are the way to go. As long as they are equal.”
My heart sank. Was this obviously humane African-American actually advocating a “separate but equal” solution—a form of marital segregation like the one that made his own parents’ marriage a felony in many states when he was born? Hadn’t he already declared he supported marriage equality when he was running for the Illinois Senate in 1996? (The administration now claims that the questionnaire from the gay Chicago paper Outlines had been answered in type—not Obama’s writing—by somebody else.) Hadn’t Jeremiah Wright’s church actually been a rare supporter of marriage equality among black churches? The sudden equivocation made no sense—except as pure political calculation. And yet it also felt strained, as if he knew it didn’t quite fit. He wanted equality but not marriage—but you cannot have one without the other. On this issue, Obama’s excruciating nonposition was essentially “Yes we can’t.” And yet somehow, simply by the way he answered that mother’s question, I didn’t believe it. I thought he was struggling between political calculation and his core belief in civil rights. And it was then that I realized he was both: a cold, steely, ruthless, calculating politician who nonetheless wanted to do the right thing in the end.
Last week he did it—in a move whose consequences are simply impossible to judge. White House sources told me that after the interview with ABC News, the president felt as if a weight had been lifted off him. Yes, he was bounced into it by Joe Biden, the lovable Irish-Catholic rogue who couldn’t help but tell the truth about his own views on TV (only to be immediately knocked down by David Axelrod on Twitter). But Obama had been planning to endorse gay marriage before his reelection for a while. White House sources say that if Obama had been a state senator in New York last year when the Albany legislature legalized gay marriage, he’d have voted in favor. But no one asked. The “make news” reveal was scheduled for The View. In the end, scrambling to catch up with his veep, he turned to his fellow ESPN fan, Robin Roberts, a Christian African-American from Mississippi, to quell the sudden kerfuffle. Even this was calculated: to have this moment occur between two African-Americans would help Obama calm opposition within parts of the black community.