. . . Thursday December 9, 2004

Is There a Right Time for the Right Stuff?

On Thanksgiving, I spent the morning watching my sister-in-law sing in the choir at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Glide has been feeding and serving the homeless, the addicted and the alienated in my city for years.

During the service, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was invited onstage to address the crowd. He was welcomed with open arms and entusiasm. This reception wasn’t a given when he took office several month ago. Newsom – with slick-backed hair, good looks and designer suits – ran on a platform aimed at fixing the homeless problem and attracting more businesses and was viewed by many in the city (and especially at Glide) as the wrong man (or more accurately, too much on the side of “The Man”) for the job.

But by Thanksgiving, Gavin Newsom was welcomed as a conquering hero by the rows of singing celebrants at Glide. Why? Because among those in this church that welcomes everyone, Newsom had passed an unexpected test. He officiated over the marriages of several gay couples and made the process legal, at least for awhile. For the folks at Glide, their Gavin stood up for them (all of them, gay or straight) because of one simple reason. It was the right thing to do.

But even here in San Francisco, the lauding of “The Man” turned man of the people is far from universal. In fact, many of California’s leading Democrats are still furious with Gavin Newsom because of what they see as his terrible timing. Newsom brought the gay marriage issue to national attention at the very moment when the Bush team could use it the most. And they did. And by many accounts, it hurt the Dems in November.

Mayor Newsom made the decision to perform the gay marriages on the political spur of the moment after having heard President Bush back the notion of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Newsom thought that the ban was immoral and stupid. He views gay rights as a civil rights issue and he decided to do something about it.

Was it worth it if it ultimately helped to keep W in office?

The controversy revolving around Newsom’s move brings up a very interesting political question: Is there a right time for the right stuff? Do we want politicians who calculate the best ways to get the most done over the long haul (a philosophy taken to extremes by the Clinton clan) or do we want political leaders who do what they think is right, in the moment?

It’s not a question with an easy answer. In fact, many gay groups are now (following the passage of gay marriage bans in 11 states) calling for a more moderate stance and a much slower strategy.

Twenty years from now, Gavin Newsom may look like a guy who was ahead of his time and be viewed as the person who had the guts to take the first major steps on a road towards equal rights for another segment of American society. But what impact did his actions and strategy (or lack thereof) actually have on the cause he sought to serve?

There is probably some middle ground here somewhere. You need a few people out front, pushing forward aggressively because what’s right is right. And you need the deep thinkers in a back room somewhere reframing the debate and strategizing the steps that need to be taken to get everyone else to agree to what’s right. The Dems could use some extra firepower in both groups. In the latest election we had a front man chosen because we thought he was a safe choice who could win running on mish-mash of unclear ideas and messages.

And where do I come down on the divide between pragmatism and idealism? Well, I often like to think of myself as a political pragmatist. But when Gavin took the stage at Glide, I enthusiastically cheered right along with everyone else.

Concentration is important!