President Barack Obama's unprecedented White House celebration of the four-decades-long struggle of gay Americans for full equality hit all the right notes, including the host's acknowledgement that politicians' pretty words are no substitute for getting rid of discriminatory laws.
Standing beside a beaming first lady in the ornate East Room on Monday, Obama warmly welcomed more 250 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans "to your White House."
The inspiring guest list ranged from two men who in 1969 resisted police harassment at the Stonewall bar -- the rebellion that kicked off the modern-day gay-rights movement -- to such gutsy contemporary trailblazers as Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, former U.S. ambassadors Jim Hormel and Michael Guest, and Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.
Hosts' welcoming remarks often leave guests a bit dizzy with narrative zigs and zags. That was certainly true of Obama's 18-minute greeting, which came in the wake of the huge outpouring of gay anger and disappointment over his pace in addressing pressing gay issues and the tone of his administration's filings in two court cases.
At times, the White House event sounded like the aftermath of a family intervention, with the president playing the loved one who feels compelled to issue reassurances that -- despite frightening behavior -- he really hadn't slipped off the equality wagon. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmEpD2sh0HA">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmEpD2sh0HA)
It also offered fascinating peeks into the president's strategic thinking about how he can pull off change he clearly believes in and not be outmaneuvered like President Bill Clinton.
That earlier gay ally's wily foes checkmated him into signing the only two federal laws that mandate discrimination against a group of U.S. citizens -- the Don't Ask, Don't Tell ban on serving openly in the military and the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to gay married couples.
On the military ban, the telling moments came when Obama declared that it "weakens our national security" and predicted, "Someday, I'm confident, we'll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst. But as commander-in-chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term." He added, "That's why I've asked the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal."
Translation: Trust me -- I'm on the problem, but I have to fix it right or we'll all be sorry.
Obama also offered a revealing glimpse at his attitude toward his Justice Department's disturbing brief embracing DOMA. Significantly, Obama used the phrase "so-called Defense of Marriage Act," distancing himself from its Orwellian title. Then he explained, "Now, I want to add we have a duty to uphold existing law. But I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides. And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law."
Translation: The next brief won't sound like a Pat Robertson fundraising letter.
Host and guests clearly shared a shrewd, results-oriented vision. "I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps," Obama said. "... I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."
That's certainly the message his guests had come to hear. Bottom line: The event bought Obama renewed faith -- and some time.