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Principle above politics 

Political analysts are explaining why President Obama may somehow have helped his re-election prospects, or at least not hurt them, by saying he supported a right of gay people to marry.

It is a fanciful exercise even in this climate in which farce is the normal medium, for nothing is more obvious than that it did not help him and may well end his presidency but also that Obama's personal belief will fairly soon stand as a universally accepted definition of American freedom.

As messy as was the way it came about — forced by his vice president's guileless admission in a TV interview that he had "no problem" with gay marriage — the president's simple statement that he believed that marriage ought to be a right accorded to people who loved each other regardless of their sexual attractions will rank alongside Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act as modern examples of putting principle above politics. Johnson knew that giving away the Solid South once the act was enforced would imperil his re-election if he ran again and that it doomed the Democratic Party in what had been since the Civil War its stronghold.

"Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" Johnson famously asked after he put down the pen. He didn't run again and the South turned dependably Republican.

The question is, what is fairly soon? The social and moral conventions about gay rights and even marriage are changing faster than anything comparable in history, but not so fast that it will be achieved by November. A generation perhaps, but not much more.

My standard for the extremity of acceptance of social change was Justice Jim Johnson, the arch segregationist whose rare political gifts were foiled over and over because he failed to detect changes in the mores of people in his state. His career was a testament to poor timing.

But in my last conversation with him before his death, he mused about the revolution in attitudes about homosexuality. It was the most effective social movement he had ever witnessed.

"You know, Ernie, I've got to say they have made a helluva convincing case that gays have a right to get married just like anyone else, and I wouldn't have said that even a year ago," Johnson said.

He referred to the strategy developed in the 1980s to confess your homosexuality and live openly and, by those on the extremity of the movement, to "out" people in public life, especially hypocritical conservative leaders like Terry Dolan, who founded the powerhouse National Conservative Political Action Committee that helped elect so many conservatives in the Reagan era. Dolan, who had begun the "family values" movement and condemned homosexuality, died of AIDS in 1986.

People everywhere discovered that their children, their perfect nieces and nephews, their neighbors and their co-workers were gay. To millions every year, homosexuality lost its mystery and its shame.

Vice President Dick Cheney, the foremost conservative in America the past decade, was the first major national politician to declare gay marriage a moral and constitutional right.

"Well, I think that freedom means freedom for everyone," Cheney said at the Gerald R. Ford Foundation journalism awards banquet in 2009. "As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something that, uh, we have lived with for a long time, in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish."

His mate, President George W. Bush, came around to the idea that gays had a right to be united in a "civil union" — marriage without the name — which polls last week suggest is now favored by a majority of American voters, though not in the South.

Anyone who reads Arkansas or Southern history finds it not just curious but appalling that their forebears devoutly believed slavery to be divinely ordained, that the marriage of black couples was not recognized by church or by the law and that, in our own memory, marriage between people of different races was deemed to be against both God's and man's law and punishable by prison.

Another generation will read our contributions to history — pronouncements like those of Jerry Cox and Republican state representatives last week — with the same baffled observation. You've got to be kidding me! We were that obtuse, and that mean?

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