Joe Biden, Cyndi Lauper and friends celebrate a big win — that really isn't much of a win

It was the most joyous celebration I've ever seen at the White House — with disturbing undertones to follow

By Brian Karem


Published December 15, 2022 9:38AM (EST)

Cyndi Lauper performs before President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Dec. 13, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Cyndi Lauper performs before President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Dec. 13, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

It may be the last victory lap for the Biden administration.

On Tuesday, the president celebrated the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act with members of Congress and more than 5,300 invited guests, with the press dutifully in attendance.

It was a great Christmas present for supporters and the LGBTQ+ community, but the New Year promises a return to Republican control in the House of Representatives, so the chances are slim that we will hear about anything more than Hunter Biden's laptop during the next two years.

The administration is well aware of this, of course, and prepared an appropriate celebration to "get while the gettin' is good" on the South Lawn. A party-like atmosphere not seen since the Obama administration prevailed on a crisp, cold, December afternoon. The Marine Corps band provided musical accompaniment while guests broke out in spontaneous cheers and dance. You know the holy rollers were spewing hatred at seeing such an assemblage, but luckily no one gathered on the South Lawn had to listen to it.

Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper performed for the crowd. If nothing else, the Biden administration has proven to be a bigger fan of a wider range of music than his predecessor, and far more successful at getting stars to appear at the White House. Jon Batiste and James Taylor, among others,  have also performed during the Biden administration.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi performed their two-person act, perhaps for the last time. (Pelosi is standing down from a leadership role, although not resigning from Congress.) Schumer drew applause, but Pelosi drew applause, praise and wild screams from a variety of attendees. "We love you Nancy," "Lesbians for Nancy" and other cheers could be heard. She drew her greatest cheer when she said that marriage equality wasn't about "tolerance" but "respect" for one another.

In my decades of covering events on the South Lawn, I've never experienced anything like that moment: no vitriol, no divisiveness, no guile.

Those who will benefit from the new law and who had suffered from oppression without it showed up to testify. Vice President Kamala Harris was mercifully brief in her introduction and then we got to hear from Biden — but not before an audio recording of his now famous appearance on "Meet the Press" 10 years ago, when he was vice president, played over the loudspeakers. "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties," Biden said.

CNN's Don Lemon, who found a place on the riser overlooking the proceedings, stood next to his fiancé in between appearances on television and smiled. He said he was "overwhelmed" by the event, adding, "Quite honestly, I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience." For many, the moment — long in coming — seemed almost like a dream.

Biden opened his remarks by saying, "Marriage is a simple proposition. Who do you love? And will you be loyal to that person you love?" the president asked from the South Lawn. "It's not more complicated than that."

Lemon was smiling as he walked down the steps from the riser to address his CNN audience, joking about Biden: "The gays will always love him."

Of all the events I've covered on the South Lawn during the decades of life that have seen me gain weight, lose hair and have what's left on my head turn gray, I have never experienced anything quite like that moment. It was without vitriol, without divisiveness, without guile.

Not only were the performers enjoyable, from the Marine Corps band (which is always a top draw) to Smith and Lauper, but there was nothing but joy in the air. The feeling was palpable. Spontaneous dancing. Singing. No fear. No protesters. No homophobia. I've never seen a more comfortable gathering of people at the White House — ever. I have never seen anything so genuine and unfettered by the politics that ruins D.C. — even though it was a political moment that could only have occurred in D.C.

So it's more than a little disconcerting to realize that the celebration that accompanied the signing of the legislation was not the total victory the president claimed it to be.

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Politics has long been considered the art of "half a loaf," meaning that neither side gets what it wants, but everybody gets a little bit of something as we march forward. That has not been the case since Newt Gingrich blew into town, taking advantage of divisiveness and encouraging a "zero-sum" game in D.C. politics. People have forgotten the old ways, but in some ways they're back. The bill that Biden signed into law Tuesday was — strictly speaking — half a loaf. He was rightfully proud to promote it as such, pointing out that it took a bipartisan effort to get it done. But the question remains: Did the Democrats make a Faustian deal?

The new law does not require all 50 states to allow same-sex marriage, as under the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. It also does not prohibit states from taking steps to ban or restrict same-sex marriage if Obergefell is overturned — a distinct possibility, given  the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jim Obergefell, the namesake of the Supreme Court decision, was noticeably not present at the historic signing. He told CBS News he was out of the country.

While we speculate as to why, it is worth noting that a Republican-sponsored amendment to the law that Biden signed Tuesday guarantees that churches, faith-based social agencies and religious educational institutions will not be required to "provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization of celebrations of a marriage," and there is no civil cause for action if they don't.

What does that mean? CBS Radio reporter Steve Portnoy asked that question to Karine Jean-Pierre in Tuesday's press briefing just prior to the big party on the South Lawn. He outlined "the concerns that some have expressed that what's actually in the bill could be read as something that codifies discrimination," citing the passage quoted above.

Jean-Pierre defended the bill and sidestepped the problems the new law could bring,  emphasizing what Biden said about marriage 10 years ago. "It comes down to a fundamental question of …who do you love and will you be loyal to that person," she said, parroting the president. "This law ensures that . . .  And that's why so many faith leaders and religious traditions have advocated in support for this bill."

It isn't a stretch to say that faith-based organizations might be in favor of the legislation because it allows them to "just say no" to marriages they wouldn't sanction. I followed up Portnoy's question with my own:

"We understand how the legislation was framed and will be signed by the president. Do you anticipate that this administration will go back, or that the Democrats will go back, and try to clean up the language in the legislation so it does not codify discrimination?"

After all, that's the art of half a loaf: Later on, you'll try to take some more. That's simple enough. "What we're saying to you today is that this piece of legislation was done in a bipartisan, bicameral way," Jean-Pierre said, "and it will make a difference for millions of Americans across the country. And we're going to celebrate this moment." 

But she also addressed the problems the law will face: "Conservatives who are going to continue to attack this, who are — who want to take away fundamental rights. We saw what happened just in June with the Dobbs decision, and so we take that very, very seriously."

Thanks to a Republican amendment, the law Biden signed essentially allows religious groups to discriminate openly against same-sex marriages, without facing any consequences.

All the new law really does is guarantee that no one working in government "under color of state law may deny full faith and credit to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other state pertaining to a marriage between two individuals on the basis of the sex, race, ethnicity or national origin of those individuals." That is significant because Obergefell and his fiancé had to travel to Maryland to get married and their marriage wasn't recognized in Ohio. That won't happen anymore — provided couples can find someone in their own state to provide the services. But the law also allows religious organizations to deny any participation in a given marriage. While some may find that to be a wonderful sign of freedom, it clearly gives such groups the ability to discriminate without recrimination.

Furthermore, there is little doubt that the Supreme Court, which is dominated by six conservative Catholics, will overturn Obergefell if and when it gets the chance. Plenty of red states are lining up to roll back their marriage laws if that happens. 

But on Wednesday that was far from anyone's thoughts on the South Lawn. 

After the songs were sung and the speeches were made, Biden worked the crowd for more than 45 minutes. He shook hands and spoke with numerous guests as he walked through the gathering. Those who continue to doubt his mental acuity should take note. Of course they never will, but Biden works a crowd with a vim and vigor I haven't seen since Bill Clinton. 

Finally, long after the throngs had left, with just a handful of folks left, Biden spoke with a child and their parent before retreating into the residence as "Respect" from Aretha Franklin boomed across the South Lawn.

There is no doubt those in attendance respected the moment. But as historic as it was, I left the event with an ominous feeling that the other shoe has yet to drop. And based on comments by the president, who clearly recognizes that this law does not end discrimination, although it takes a "critical step to ensure that Americans have the right to marry the person they love" — he later qualified it  as a "measure of security" rather than a definitive guarantee — he knows it too.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Democrats Joe Biden Marriage Equality Republicans Respect For Marriage Act Same-sex Marriage