Newsweek's cover this week declares that Barack Obama is the "First Gay President," playing on the reader's knowledge that Obama isn't himself gay, but his support for same-sex marriage earns him an honorary rainbow halo. The headline obviously calls back to 1998, when Toni Morrison declared Bill Clinton the first black president in The New Yorker, which at the time was edited by current Newsweek editor Tina Brown. "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas," Morrison wrote, laying out the formula for how to declare a President has attained the identity of someone else through actions and behaviors. Newsweek's cover has been called "controversial" and "pretty shocking," but it's merely the most recent in presidential firsts that weren't for the country's actual first black president.
First Female President: Perhaps Newsweek should have been more specific and declared Obama the "first lesbian president' because the magazine's already given him the honor of womanhood. During the 2008 campaign, Martin Linski wrote, "Obama doesn't play the sax. But he is pushing against conventional—and political party nominating convention—wisdom in five important ways, with approaches that are usually thought of as qualities and values that women bring to organizational life." The headline? "Obama: First Female President?"
In June 2010, The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker took the question mark out of the way. "Obama: Our first female president," her headline declared. Her column made the case that his crisis management style was more typically female.
First Jewish President: Like this week's issue of Newsweek, New York magazine went big on their Morrison reappropriation. Former White House counsel Abner Mikva told John Heilemann, "When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president." The magazine made it their cover.
First Asian-American President: In 2009, the AFP ran with the headline, "Obama the first Asian-American president?" As evidence, the article notes that in his first hundred days, "Obama appointed a record three Asian-Americans cabinet members and quickly focused his attention across the Pacific. He invited Japan's prime minister as his first guest and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Asia on her maiden trip."
First Hispanic President: Geraldo Rivera spoke in March 2009 about the hopes the Hispanic community had for Obama's immigration policies, alleging "Barack Obama is the first Hispanic president the same way Bill Clinton was the first black [one]."
George W. Bush, the only other president since Clinton, received comparatively few honorifics. Writing in Foreign Policy Suhail Khan did once write, "If Clinton was, as the author Toni Morrison once quipped, America's first black president, Bush was, at least momentarily, the country's first Muslim president." (Those on the far right who would give Obama that title should take note.)
But Obama's received the bulk of it. Perhaps that's because he did set an historic first as the first black president, Clinton be darned. Obama's supporters often see what they want to see in him. Just consider how many interpreted his "evolving" stance on gay marriage to be (as it eventually was) a closeted support. We love to break barriers in America, but we only get the chance every four years, so in the meantime, we work with the male Christian president we've got.
Newsweek's headline quickly grabbed the attention it was obviously seeking, but given this list, maybe we shouldn't have been surprised by it. Expectations were high that editor Tina Brown would do something typically attention-grabbing to mark this occasion, but this effort seems, well, cliché. It wasn't going to be long before someone outed our first black, female, Jewish, hispanic, Asian-American president as gay.