The dirty secret about bullying is that it is more popular than most of us care to admit. Many adults believe that a bullying victim must learn to fight back, and therefore do not intervene. There is also the group dynamic in which bullying, at least for a time, wins applause. A bully succeeds because others go along.
Gov. Chris Christie has built a political career on lines like "I will go Jersey on you people," presenting rudeness and bullying as straight-talking leadership. He must have thought he had won the day on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Feb. 23 when he was challenged by the polite, bespectacled Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post.
The elegantly dressed Capehart is not imposing, but fought above his weight that day. Christie was defending his veto of New Jersey's marriage equality bill: "My feet are firmly planted right next to President Obama." He claimed that his stance opposing marriage equality while supporting civil unions is identical to Obama's, and that Obama is better treated only because he is a Democrat.
Capehart pointed out that, unlike Christie, Obama (1) has opposed anti-gay ballot initiatives; (2) praised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's leadership on that state's marriage equality bill; and (3) declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and refused to defend it in court. Christie repeatedly interrupted Capehart, said "I'm not going to be cross-examined by you," and accused Obama of cowardice. Capehart did not back down.
Christie exploits the fact that many gay advocates agree with him on Obama. We have allowed our frustration with the President's "evolving" to blind us to how much better he is than Christie. Obama in 2008 called Prop. 8 "divisive and discriminatory," and said the same in 2009 about ballot measures in Maine and Washington state. Television, however, is a medium where facts can be knocked aside by hard elbows and mockery. But as with firefighters using a firebreak, a rhetorical fire can burn itself out and overheated patriots be exposed as scoundrels.
After acknowledging that Democrats had said a civil rights issue should not be on the ballot, Christie changed the subject by saying that Democrats claimed New Jerseyans want marriage equality, and he is giving them a chance to prove it. But that ignores the question of whether civil rights should be on the ballot at all.
Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough asked the loaded question, "Would you compare the status of a relationship and how it is recognized officially by a state to little children being blown up in Birmingham?" In other words, if you haven't faced lynch mobs, you're not entitled to equal protection of the law. This absurd standard too often goes unchallenged.
Capehart calmly answered "Yes" to the civil rights comparison: "It's an issue of equality. It's an issue of equal treatment under the law. It's an issue of whether, if I were to get married to my partner and we were to have children, my children would have the same protections that your children have because you're able to legally marry."
It shows how far we have come that a mainstream, Pulitzer-winning journalist could challenge Christie's lies from his own perspective as a black gay man. That Capehart did so with poise and persistence was an admirable service, not only to gay families but to civility in public discourse.
Yes, the President needs to finish evolving. But recognizing that Obama is better on marriage than a governor pushing a marriage referendum is in our self-interest. In the struggles ahead, we cannot afford to treat imperfect allies as enemies.
Jonathan Capehart may not have won the testosterone match against Gov. Christie, but he was right. Bravo to him for standing up to a bully.