Can I Just Tell You?
12:00 pm
Thu March 21, 2013

When Should Politicians' Life Experience Determine Policy?

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 4:31 pm

I have been thinking about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

The Republican was on the short list for the vice presidential nomination in the last election. While he has not been outspoken on the subject of same-sex marriage, he has consistently opposed it — until now.

Recently, Portman announced that he changed his mind. He says this is because his son Will is gay.

Portman talked about this with CNN's Dana Bash. "I've come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and the stability of marriage that I've had for over 26 years," he said. "I want all three of my kids to have it, including our son who is gay."

Now, you probably don't need me to tell you that you rarely go wrong by questioning a politician's motives. An example is the ever popular, "I am resigning to spend more time with my family," which of course could mean: "I know I am not going to win anyway and, oh, by the way, I'm having an affair with a staff member."

Still, let's take Portman at his word: that his opinion about gays and lesbians — and who they are, and what they should be able to do — was formed by a certain worldview. And that it made sense to him, until he had to reconcile that worldview with another truth — the truth of his son's life, and the truth that he is the same boy Portman has loved and respected his whole life, and for whom he wants the best. And Portman is not alone in this.

A Pew Research study just released this week found that more than a quarter of the people who say they now support same-sex marriage say they had a change of heart on the matter. Actually, the question says they changed their minds — which may be different — but I think the heart was involved, because one-third of those people say the reason they changed their opinion was that they know someone who is gay.

Now if that makes sense to you, then maybe somebody can explain why it didn't make sense to some people when President Obama openly grieved over the death of a Florida boy named Trayvon Martin. He was shot to death after he bought snacks at a convenience store, because a man he didn't know found him threatening.

Obama was criticized because he pointed out that Trayvon's death hit him hard, in part because Trayvon could have been his son. So, in essence, he was criticized for "governing while black" — allowing his own life experience to inform how he saw a particular issue.

Can I just tell you? Life experience really does matter. I read once that former President Lyndon Johnson was influenced in matters of civil rights at least as much by one of his housekeepers and the indignities she had to suffer on her trips south to open up his Texas ranch for the summer, as he was by the entreaties of the civil rights leadership.

Could it be that this is one reason our progress now so often stalls on difficult issues like law enforcement, crime and race? Could it be that conservative whites like Sen. Portman can't envision a scenario where their own children could lose their lives on a run to the store for snacks?

And on the other side of it, could it be that that's one reason Obama sometimes stumbles? Because he so thoroughly represents and lives the America we are fast becoming — browner, younger, mixed and multinational — that he sometimes forgets how frightening this new world is to the people who were comfortable in the old?

So, yes, life experience — it matters. It matters that a leader loves and cares for his own children. But that, to me, is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. The test of leadership is not how much someone cares about his own kids, but how much he or she can care for and dream dreams for all those children he has never met. Yours and mine included.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, I have been thinking about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. He is a Republican. He was on the short list for Republican vice presidential nominee, in the last election. While he's not been outspoken on the subject of same-sex marriage, he has consistently opposed it - until now. Recently, Sen. Portman announced that he has changed his mind. He says this is because his own son, Will, is gay. Sen. Portman talked about this with CNN's Dana Bash.

SEN. ROBERT PORTMAN: I've come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do - to get married, and to have the joy and the stability of marriage that I've had for over 26 years. I want all three of my kids to have it; including our son, who is gay.

MARTIN: Now, you probably don't need me to tell you that you rarely go wrong by questioning a politician's motives. An example is the ever-popular "I'm resigning to spend more time with my family," which - of course - generally means, "I know I'm not going to win anyway and oh, by the way, I'm having an affair with a staff member."

Still, let's take Sen. Portman at his word - that his opinion about gays and lesbians, and who they are and what they should be able to do, was formed by a certain worldview. And it made sense to him until he had to reconcile that worldview with another truth - the truth of his son's life, and the truth that he's the same boy Portman has loved and respected his whole life, and for whom he wants the best.

And Sen. Portman is not alone in this. A Pew Research study, just released this week, found that more than a quarter of the people who say they now support same-sex marriage say they had a change of heart on the matter. Actually, the question says they changed their minds, which may be different, but I think the heart was involved because a third of those people say the reason they've changed their opinion was that they know someone who's gay.

Now, if that makes sense to you, then maybe somebody can explain why it didn't make sense to some people for President Obama to openly grieve over the death of a Florida boy named Trayvon Martin. He was shot to death after he bought snacks at a convenience store because a man he didn't know found him threatening. Obama was criticized because he pointed out that Trayvon's death hit him particularly hard, in part because Trayvon could have been his son. So in essence, he was criticized for governing while black - allowing his life experience to inform how he saw a particular issue.

Can I just tell you? Life experience really does matter. I read once that former President Lyndon Johnson was influenced in matters of civil rights at least as much by one of his housekeepers, and the indignity she had to suffer on her trips South, as he was by the entreaties of the civil rights leadership.

But could it be that this is one reason our progress now so often stalls on difficult issues like law enforcement, crime and race? Could it be that conservative whites like Sen. Portman can't envision a scenario where their own children could lose their lives on a run to the store for snacks?

And on the other side of it, could it be that that's one reason Mr. Obama sometimes stumbles? Because he so thoroughly represents and lives the America we are fast becoming - browner, younger, mixed and multinational - that he sometimes forgets how frightening this new world is to the people who were comfortable in the old one.

So yes, life experience - it matters. It matters that a leader loves and cares for his own children. But that, to me, is a necessary condition; not a sufficient one. The test of leadership is not how much someone cares about his own kids, but how much he or she can care for and dream dreams for all those children he's never met - yours and mine included.

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