Why the President’s Words Matter

Yesterday, my iPad, phone and computer cried out as one that there was breaking news on the wires.  As the third beep caught my attention, I read the alert and a broad smile came across my face.  President Obama had come out in support of marriage equality and same sex couples right to be married.  As one who has long been involved in what I believe to be the great civil rights issue of today, the affirmation of marriage equality by a sitting president was both historic and grounds for celebration (both in real life and online, as evidenced by the deluge of tweets and Facebook posts).

This morning brought a different perspective as newspapers, morning shows and online commentaries began to debate whether the President’s words really mattered.  Some sought to paint his statement as a product of political expediency, a move to shore up his standing with “the base” going into a difficult election.  Others saw the President as being forced to come out early on the issue as a result of statements in support of same sex marriage by Vice President Biden and members of the President’s cabinet.  Still others made light of President Obama’s “evolution” as a sign of weakness rather than conviction (for a wonderful perspective on this, see Jay Michaelson’s editorial from The Forward). And there were those who questioned even the courage required to make such a statement, as those in opposition to same sex marriage were probably never going to vote for President Obama in the next election anyway. Finally, there were those who simply dismissed the President’s words as ones that will make little difference, since this is an issue that will be decided on a state level and in the courts, long before there will be any federal action supporting marriage equality.

All of these miss the point as to why President Obama’s words mattered so much.  Simply put, they represented an iconic moment. The impact of iconic moments such as this echo through history long after they are spoken and have the power to bring about long term change, even when they seem to be simply words or images in the short term.  A second article that appeared on the front page of this morning’s paper beside the President’s headline making statement appeared beshert in its connection to this idea.

It told of the passing of President Kennedy’s Deputy Attorney General, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, a historic figure in the fight for civil rights.  Katzenbach was sent by Kennedy in June of 1963 to oversee the integration of the University of Alabama.  This resulted in one of the iconic moments of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s as he stood up to the segregationist Gov. George Wallace and successfully registered two black students at the university without incident.  This singular moment did not end state sponsored discrimination in the South, but it was one of the iconic moments that pushed our country towards widespread calls for change.  Change that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s and many years later to a country that would elect its first black president.

Iconic moments have the power to do that, to make short term news that sows the seeds of long term change.  And Presidents (through their words and the actions of their administrations) have  a special power when it comes to bringing such iconic moments to life.  That is why the President’s words yesterday, affirming the right of same sex couples to marry, mattered so much.  It was the kind of iconic moment that makes a symbolic difference in the short term, but (I pray) will have an impact that echoes throughout our country helping to bring a revolutionary change in the days, months and years to come.

So, thank you Mr. President, for speaking out, for producing the kind of iconic moment only a President can make and for sowing the seeds of a better tomorrow for our our country and our children.

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