What happened this past Monday in the fight to defend marriage was one of those moments that reveal the character of a man, a movement and perhaps a country.
It's a story that displays one man's courage, a law firm's cravenness, and a movement's will to power.
The drama unfolded in the space of just a few hours.
Just 24 hours after the Human Rights Campaign openly announced an effort to harass and punish law firm King and Spalding for permitting one of its lawyers, former Solicitor General Paul Clement, to take on the U.S. House of Representatives as a client defending the Defense of Marriage Act, initial reports circulated that the law firm had dropped its client like a hot potato.
But instead, something extraordinary happened: Paul Clement refused to cave. He left his job rather than abandon a client under pressure.
Clement made it clear this is not necessarily because he is so committed to defending marriage, but because he has personal integrity and believes in the rule of law.
"Efforts to delegitimize any representation for one side of a legal controversy are a profound threat to the rule of law. ... When it comes to the lawyers, the surest way to be on the wrong side of history is to abandon a client in the face of hostile criticism," he wrote in resigning from King and Spalding, which tried to force him to dump his client.
Even a former solicitor general of President Clinton, Seth Waxman, agreed, telling the Washingtonian: "I think it's important for lawyers on the other side of the political divide from Paul ... to reaffirm what Paul wrote. ... Having undertaken to defend DOMA, he's acting in the highest professional and ethical traditions in continuing to represent a client."
Even Ted Olson, who is leading the legal charge against California's Proposition 8, could not believe the law firm caved. "I don't know of anything comparable to this. You have to be willing to stand your ground," Olson told the Los Angeles Times.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial, "Knave and Spalding," ended with this thought: "Social mores have changed in 15 years, but not so much that gay marriage should be imposed by judicial fiat in a way that further inflames the culture war. The Human Rights Campaign has every right to challenge DOMA in court, but it does itself no honor by trying to deny that same right to DOMA's supporters by harassing their legal counsel."
"As for King and Spalding," the editors sniffed, "better not turn your back on its lawyers in a firefight."
Meanwhile the Human Rights Campaign was gleefully boasting about its raw power -- its campaign to punish enacted in full public view. To anyone who has been at the forefront of the marriage fight, there is little new in the extraordinary effort to punish a whole law firm because HRC doesn't like its client. Gay marriage advocates have again and again used class networks of power to attack individuals, livelihoods and whole business enterprises to make support for marriage so expensive that they can effectively silence opposition to their views.
But this time it happened in full public view.
In a truly Orwellian statement, HRC President Joe Solmonese praised King and Spalding's decision to abandon a client under fire as an example of putting "principle above politics." Oh Joe, oh Joe.
It's important for all of us to remember that life for ordinary gay people can still be difficult, even as a powerhouse gay movement flexes its cultural, financial and behind-the-scenes political power to repress the rights of others to organize, speak, donate and now hire a lawyer to defend marriage.
One thing is clear: This is not a movement that needs extraordinary intervention by the courts to protect its rights. As one blog comment put it: "Making a blue-chip law firm drop the federal government as a client? Oppressed groups don't usually have that kind of clout."
Time for the rest of us to learn how to organize to defend our rights, too.
(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)