Not a Satisfactory Answer

In watchingthe California Supreme Court try to split the baby in some completely egregious way this week, I was saddened for my friends in the gay community. The court upheld Prop 8, which others far more intelligent and involved than I, can parse at length regarding the legal issues involved. From an outsiders view, it seemed to me to be a case of “you’re just thiissss clossseee to being what you want, but we don’t want to give it to you” that you get from grade-school kids on the playground.

Doing what’s right isn’t always easy. I get that, so I understand to some degree why people without a dog in the fight (read: many voters and probably most of the justices on the CSC) feel it better to support the status quo than to say, “Hey, this needs to change.” Still, we need people who are willing to do things that are uncomfortable when they are in the position to change things for the better.

One of my favorite stories comes from a meeting of baseball executives before the 1947 season, in which the Brooklyn Dodgers were attempting to integrate baseball. Branch Rickey made the case to bring Jackie Robinson from the Montreal affiliate to the majors. The owners cast a ballot on the issue and voted 15-1 not to let him play. Commissioner Harold “Happy” Chandler was the final authority on such matters and he recalled years later the phone call he got from Rickey once that meeting was over.

Chandler listened to Rickey briefly and with little fanfare agreed to let Robinson play. A stunned Rickey asked why this man, the former senator and governor of Kentucky and a man who once supported Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat run for the presidency, would support such a move. In his autobiography, and in almost every interview he gave until his death in 1991, Chandler’s answer was the same:

“I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day and if he asks me why I didn’t let this young man play and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.”

The answer might have sat well with his Maker, but not with baseball ownership. He was effectively ousted from the commissioner’s spot in 1951 when his term expired and his contract wasn’t renewed. He went back to Kentucky and became governor again. He would help integrate the schools in Kentucky, decline an invitation by George Wallace to be his running mate and earn election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a saint by any means, having once declared the country of Zimbabwe to be “all nigger now” and having stood on the side of Thurmond’s Dixiecrats for more time than any decent man should.

However, when the chips were down, he put principle ahead of politics, what was right in front of what was easy and he gave us the modern game in which players of all races, creeds and colors join together on a field of green to show us poetry in motion.

In the movement toward equality among marriage, there needs to be a voice of strength and power who steps up to say, “this concept that it’s supposed to be Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve is a pithy bumper sticker, but when I meet my Maker, that might not be a satisfactory answer for denying human rights to human beings.” Someone needs to stand up and put principles ahead of politics, long-term gain ahead of self-interest and the betterment of others ahead of the safety of one’s own position.

Who will be Happy?

7 thoughts on “Not a Satisfactory Answer

  1. Doc, don’t hold your breath waiting for Obama to be the one to step up. Obama, in spite of being infinitely better as President than Bush, on Bush’s best day, is not going to rock any boats. If you will recall, JFK was somewhat like that too. It took a brash man with little subtlety, LBJ, to step up and actually make the changes so desperately needed at that time.

  2. I think Governor Schwarzenegger, mockable though he often is, had it right when he talked to Jay Leno about this.
    “It isn’t over. People who are in favor of this will be back, and it will change.” He didn’t offer to lead the charge. But speaking of a brash man with little subtlety … I had a strong impression that if it came across his desk in some form he could decide, he’d do the right thing.

  3. One pundit speculated that the CSC wanted to avoid the fate of Rose Bird and other justices, who were voted out of their positions on the CSC because of their opposition to the death penalty and other issues.
    Now THERE’S a great reason to deny constitutional rights…keep your job.

  4. Excellent post Doc, really.
    And great comments, all. So much of this and other challenges facing Obama and the other politicians comes down to the political cost. I have frequently and vocally wished for pols who were willing to ignore such costs and just do what is right. Not many of those around. As much as I’d like to blame that on personal cowardice of the individuals, and even though I tend to do that on occasion, I have to remind myself sometimes that it’s not that simple.
    People are still hotly debating whether The Great Society and the New Deal before it were a grand successes or a miserable failures. I tend to think of them as a very expensive necessary changes. Expensive not because of the economic cost but the political cost of the dixiecrat diaspora and how it changed the political landscape. We’re still living with that fall out.
    Of course I personally think it was worth it and of course I am tired of waiting for change but the commenters above are right. It’s unlikely the next round of standard bearer(s) will be from among the big players on the national level.

  5. I think it was an impressive decision with important ramifications. In California, fundamental human rights are subject to referendum. Isn’t it time for a proposition invalidating Mormon or Roman Catholic marriage? Shouldn’t California voters have their say on the rights of non-Hispanics to own property in traditional Hispanic areas, i.e. those with traditional Spanish names like Los Angeles and San Francisco?
    Spiro Agnew and I never saw eye to eye on much, but neither of us have been big fans of government by referendum.

  6. I agree, Kaleberg–this should also be considered in the context of California’s nutso system of allowing the CA Constitution to be amended at the drop of Tinkerbell’s hat.
    I mean, my takeaway from this ruling was, “Hey, Californians have the right to change their constitution by vote. It’s stupid, it’s destructive, it’s bad, but it’s their right. Mebbe y’all ought to change that, too.”
    It just sucks that the actual result of this ruling is that a whole class of citizens is being denied a basic human right. Let’s hope California gets its collective head out of its collective ass soon and fixes that–and fixes their wacky Constitution while they’re at it.

  7. I think that in general the prospect of a constitutional convention offers much more potential for mischief than for progress, and I know we’ve got to be careful what we wish for. All that said — and perhaps because I live in North Carolina and probably wouldn’t be directly affected — if there’s a state in the Union that needs a concon, it’s Cali. State government there is even more broken than it is in Alabama, which is saying something.

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