Since he took office, promising to end discrimination and persecution of America's homosexual community, gay rights have been overtaking even abortion as a front-page public controversy. Two events are now intensifying the spotlight: Friday's first Oval Office meeting between a president and leaders of the homosexual community, and next weekend's march here by gay activists, which up to a million people may attend. Both are strewn with pitfalls for Mr Clinton.
The issue stirs emotion in ways so unpredictable and contradictory that even a politician as deft as he is hard put to manage them. For weeks this year, the rumpus over homosexuals in the military embarrassingly submerged all discussion of his plans for the economy. Large majorities may support an end to workplace discrimination against open homosexuals but other demands on today's gay agenda are another matter.
These include equal pension and welfare benefits for gay couples, equal social acceptance of alternative sexual behaviour, and infinitely sensitive family and adoption issues. Both Vermont and Massachusetts courts are considering cases where lesbians are seeking to become the adoptive parents of their partner's children.
For gays, such issues are the stuff of a campaign which they say is the moral equivalent of the 1960s civil rights movement for America's black community. But they risk alienating many former 'Reagan Democrats' who rallied to Mr Clinton.
Even in conventional political terms, the split is evident. Congressional support for enshrining homosexual rights is at best lukewarm, with barely 20 of the 100-member Senate said to be committed to such legislation. Nearly half the 50 states outlaw sodomy between consenting males, while anti-gay activists in seven more want to follow Colorado's recent example and forbid laws which formally protect gays from discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Clinton, elected precisely because he seemed to represent a break with old-style Democratic liberalism, has started to act with extreme caution. Although gay leaders invited to the Oval Office hailed the meeting as a huge symbolic breakthrough, they extracted no specific promises from Mr Clinton.
Indeed, the White House barred photographers from the encounter and the President has studiously arranged to be out of town on Sunday for an occasion at which he would have been under powerful pressure to participate, even to address marchers.
All of which suggests that next Sunday may be less than an unqualified paean to the new occupant of the White House. Several militant groups are saying they will use the march as a platform to criticise Mr Clinton for playing politics with a movement that contributed dollars 3.5m, and maybe almost as many votes to his campaign.
But with his deficit-cutting package still up in the air, his economic measures blocked by the Republicans, and his opinion poll ratings down to barely 50 per cent, these groups fear the President will hesitate to risk much political capital on so tricky a cause. His edgy behaviour signals their calculations may be correct.Reuse content