Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama was running a little behind schedule. He had just delivered a speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters at the Hyatt Hotel on Capitol Hill.
Obama's news hit, if there was to be one, was supposed to be his speech at the union's presidential forum. But it was his dodging a question tossed at him on his way out of the hotel last week about whether homosexuality was immoral that left his team scrambling to repair relations with an important Democratic constituency, the gay and lesbian community.
Now comes word that the Obama campaign is forming a gay advisory panel, though a spokesman said a plan had been in the works before the dust-up.
Chief rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, as it happened, made the same stumble a few hours before Obama, sidestepping the same question. So both teams swung into damage control duty with gay rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Stonewall Democrats, national gay political organizations.
By the end of that day, both campaigns issued separate statements saying that they do not consider homosexuality immoral. But gay rights activists were stunned Obama and Clinton did not say what they believed in the first place.
"I was in disbelief," said Michael Bauer, a prominent Chicago Democrat, gay activist and Obama supporter who is one of his major fund-raisers. "Totally perplexed that in the face of such bigotry what we were receiving was silence." Bauer sent strongly worded e-mails to Obama's inner campaign circle, shocked and alarmed over Obama's hesitancy.
The entire episode is an example of how cautious Obama is and how that caution itself sometimes can backfire. Here's how it unfolded.
As Obama was rushing to leave the hotel, a reporter for a Brazil broadcast outlet tossed Obama a question about a pending U.S.-Brazil biofuels agreement and whether he supports lower tariffs on ethanol. Support for ethanol is a major issue in Iowa -- the state with the first presidential vote next January, so Obama was cautious with the potential Iowa landmine. "We need to take a look at the agreement before I comment on that," he said.
Then a Newsday reporter, Glenn Thrush, said to Obama, "What do you think about Gen. [Peter] Pace's comments that homosexuality is immoral?"
The question was a follow-up to the statement the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made to the Chicago Tribune editorial board, that homosexual acts were immoral.
"I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters,'' said Obama. ''That's probably a good tradition to follow. ''
Obama was asked again. "What do you think of the characterization of homosexuality as being immoral? Sen. Clinton was asked that this morning on 'Good Morning America.' Do you think homosexuality is immoral as Gen. Pace has asserted?''
At that, Obama reframed the question to refer to the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy and he said, "I think the question here is whether somebody is willing to sacrifice for their country, should they be able to? If they are doing all the things that are needed to be done." He ignored a third try.
On Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," Obama, asked about the Pace comment said, "I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral. I think that people are people and to categorize one group of folks based on their sexual orientation that way I think is wrong."
Obama also told King there was a need to re-examine the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy but did not call for an end to it.
Obama was more forceful when he was running for the Senate in 2004 and seeking an endorsement from progressive Democrats. Here's what he wrote on his questionnaire for the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization to answer the question, "What is your position on gays and lesbians in the military."
Responded Obama, "I don't believe it is appropriate that hundreds of our military personnel have been drummed out of the armed forces because their sexual orientation has become known. . . . As a member of the U.S. Senate, I would encourage the Armed Services to revisit the current "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which is unfair to those brave service people and is harming rather than strengthening our armed forces."