Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chafee Does the Right Thing

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more and no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. 
Luke 5:5 (The Message)

On Monday Governor Lincoln Chafee did a very brave thing. He issued an executive order declaring that the state will recognize same sex marriages performed in other states, just as the state recognizes heterosexual marriages performed in other states. This means that those couples will have the same rights as their heterosexual neighbors with regard to health insurance and many other benefits.

We rarely see such courage in our political leaders. We claim that we value it, but my guess is that Chafee will get little credit for his courage.

Part of it is his own fault.

Just by chance, I watched the signing on Capitol TV. Martha Holt Castle spoke eloquently about the difficulties that she and her wife faced in getting both of their names on their son’s birth certificate, and she told the story of another woman who had faced many obstacles in dealing with the legal ramifications of her partner’s death. Both of these problems will be corrected by the executive order.

Then she introduced Governor Chafee. He thanked her for her remarks, smiled his goofy smile, and sat down to sign the Executive Order. As is the custom, he used several pens for his signature, and then he passed them out to leaders in the cause of Marriage Equality. He hugged everyone and then he stepped up to the microphone.

He grinned. He said something like, “this is long overdue. I don’t see how anyone could look at this room and not be in favor of marriage equality.” And then I think he gave a thumbs up. And that was it.

It was the perfect opportunity for a stirring speech about the need for political courage in times like this, about making hard decisions, about the historic battles for civil rights. He could have said those things without bragging, while making it clear that he was willing to do what others were afraid to do.

But he just grinned and waved.

I have met Lincoln Chafee just twice. Each time he was at our church for the funeral of the parent of a childhood friend. Each time he gave a short remembrance. One of the things I have noticed at funerals is that often when people share remembrances; it is more about them than it is about the person who died. Chafee did none of that. He is the most self-effacing politician I have ever encountered.

Lincoln Chafee suffers in comparison to his father. John Chafee was a great man. He had integrity and intelligence and a willingness to stand on principle even when it put him at odds with popular opinion or the leaders of his party. And he was an imposing figure with craggy good looks and a presence that commanded attention. Lincoln Chafee, on the other hand, looks like one of the characters from “The Big Bang Theory.” He speaks awkwardly and he moves awkwardly. And he has that goofy grin.

In a statement reacting to the Executive Order, Christopher C. Plante, regional coordinator for the National Organization for Marriage, immediately declared his opposition. “To issue an executive order recognizing same-sex marriage flies in the face of the clearly expressed actions of the legislature and the people,” said Plante. I think Plante is wrong about the people, but he is right about the legislature.

Lincoln Chafee is one of the world’s worst politicians. He is not an eloquent speaker. But he is not afraid of taking an unpopular stance. He made national news when he wanted to be inclusive by calling the tree in the State House a “Holiday Tree.” He wanted to be inclusive, and he was not bothered by the abuse and ridicule heaped on him. As a Senator, he was the only Republican to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. And he will stand up for equality. I think his father would be proud.

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