President Barack Obama told ABC this week that he supports gay marriage.
President Barack Obama told ABC this week that he supports gay marriage. Carolyn Kaster/AP
Most Americans give politicians low marks for sincerity and see every decision they reach as a cold, poll-driven calculation. Often enough, it is. Politicians, after all, have asked pollsters where they should spend their summer vacations.
Yet when pundits and interest groups urge politicians to change their minds and they do, they're assailed for flip-flopping.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have faced that charge several times, on several issues, including the president's new support for gay marriage, and Romney's current opposition to abortion. Journalists always have to be skeptical. But I wonder if it's too easy to automatically see political calculation as the only force that changes a politician's mind or heart.
It is hard to think of more personal issues than love, marriage, and abortion. Millions of Americans have probably changed their feelings about those issues, too, because real experience can become more compelling than opinions.
People who never thought they could accept same-sex marriage can get to know a gay couple — and like them. Couples who were comfortable with legal abortion can see a human embryo on a sonogram and find their comfort shaken.
Politicians are often lauded in speeches for holding fast to their convictions. But history often honors those who change their minds.
Abraham Lincoln didn't run for president as an abolitionist, famously saying, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it." But he saw thousands die under his command and came to feel that so much blood shouldn't be shed just to reset the world the way it was. So he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which even alarmed a lot of Northerners, and said in his second inaugural address that "every drop of blood drawn with the lash [of slavery] shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."
Robert Caro, no idolater of Lyndon Johnson, shows in his most recent volume how the U.S. civil rights movement personally touched a man who had grown up in poverty and witnessed the lash of bigotry in a rural Texas that had segregated schools, hospitals, churches and theaters. Yet his best friends in the U.S. Senate were old segregationist southern Democrats, like Richard Russell of Georgia.
But as president Lyndon Johnson used legislative tricks he learned from them to pass a voting rights bills that changed the complexion of American democracy, even as he knew it would cost his party Southern votes for a generation.
Others may have other examples of politicians who changed course, and not all would be considered so heroic. But sometimes, politicians feel called to look inside themselves on an issue — as a citizen, friend or parent — and the change they feel can change others.