By Leonard Pitts Jr.
"You're like a dull knife, just ain't cuttin', just talkin' loud and saying nothing" — James Brown
Granted, it's not entirely fair to use that lyric to describe Jeb Bush's comments on same-sex marriage. After all, he is not known to have talked loudly.
But he was definitely saying nothing.
That, admittedly, may be a minority opinion. The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico all used the same word to describe the statement Bush issued about same-sex marriage: "conciliatory," they called it.
The statement in question was released to clarify remarks Bush made in a brief interview with The Miami Herald on Jan 4 as the courts were sweeping away a gay marriage ban approved by Florida voters in 2008. Bush, a probable 2016 presidential contender, lamented the new status quo. "The people of the state decided," he said. "But it's been overturned by the courts, I guess."
A day later, Bush recalibrated, issuing the following statement: "We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law. I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."
That is, yes, an improvement over the bare-knuckle, anti-gay politics that have long characterized Florida's former governor. But "conciliatory"? Not really.
One is struck by Bush's apparent implicit belief that fundamental rights are, or ought to be, subject to majority approval. Does this apply also to the question of which group of adults can or cannot vote, protest or own property? And if not, then by what logic does it apply to the question of which group of adults can or cannot marry?
As for his plea that we respect those who seek to "safeguard religious liberty" ... really? Apparently, that is to become the preferred euphemism, the "state's rights" of resistance to LGBT equality. But just as the only "right" the states rights crowd was ever interested in was the right to discriminate on account of race, so the only "liberty" the religious liberty folks ever seem to want is the liberty to refuse service to same-sex couples.
So let us not get too carried away by Jeb 2.0. What he offered last week was less about extending olive branches than about trying to have his cake and eat it, too — to simulate change without actually changing. This kind of fence straddling will become all too familiar as conservatives grapple with the fact that marriage equality is here and, more to the point, that they have been — yet again — bypassed by social change and repudiated by progress.
"Respect the ... people on all sides," says Bush. And yes, that sure sounds noble. Problem is, you reach a point in every successful struggle for human rights where there is only one side for decent people to be. It happened with civil rights; it happened with women's rights, it is happening now with gay and lesbian rights. In response to which, Bush serves up this watery soup, which will, one suspects, be particularly unsatisfying to those directly injured by the hurtful words people like him spoke and the restrictive laws they passed.
Apparently, though, that's all he can bring himself to offer. Fine. But let's not call it more than it is. The Herald probably caught the flavor of Bush's words better than the Times, the Post or Politico. Its headline read: "On gay marriage, Jeb Bush ready to move on." In other words, having come into a new era where the bigotry he championed has fallen from favor, the man who would be president is eager to change the subject.
That isn't conciliatory, friends. It's expedient.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpittsmiamiherald.com.