Obama’s Address Casts Harsh Light on Clinton Administration
There were high expectations for former President Bill Clinton when he walked out onto the blue-carpeted stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September.
The former president had become a staunch defender of President Barack Obama, leaving behind perceived animosity developed over a long and brutal primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. With Hillary Clinton serving as secretary of state and Obama in a heated race against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, all eyes were on the great communicator Sept. 5, with supporters hoping Clinton could lend his charisma and fight to a president sometimes perceived as distant.
’’We’re here to nominate a president, and I’ve got one in mind,’’ Clinton said to cheers from the packed Time Warner Cable Arena.
For 50 minutes Clinton spoke about the economy in a policy-heavy speech that ran 10 minutes longer than Obama’s own speech the following night. Often veering from his prepared remarks, Clinton dissected Romney’s plan for the economy in a style that reminded many what made Clinton one of the most successful politicians of the late 20th century. Observers declared Clinton’s speech a rousing success, but for LGBT Americans there was no denying what was left unsaid.
Considered a pillar of the modern Democratic Party, two of the most lasting legacies of Bill Clinton’s presidency were anti-gay policies that have taken nearly two decades to undo, and whose undoing has been largely assisted by the president Clinton went to Charlotte to help re-elect.
Despite campaigning a year earlier on the promise that gay and lesbian Americans would at last be allowed to serve openly in the American military, Clinton and Congress approved ’’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ in 1993 as a compromise to the full ban on gay servicemembers that existed when Clinton entered the White House. Gay people would be allowed to serve under Clinton’s compromise, but by sharing their sexual orientation they faced discharged. And discharged they were, with more than 14,500 LGB servicemembers fired under the discriminatory ban before its repeal in 2011.
’’He probably should have mentioned it,’’ gay retired Army Gen. Keith Kerr told Metro Weekly in a phone interview from his California home shortly after Clinton’s speech last September.
The 81-year-old Kerr, who worked for years to repeal DADT and was a member of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president, said acknowledgment by Bill Clinton of the policy he signed into law could have sent a strong message more aligned with a party convention that highlighted Obama’s repeal of the discriminatory policy multiple times.
Although Kerr said he initially supported DADT as a compromise when it was implemented in 1993, he quickly grew wary of its misuse as it became a ’’weapon of vengeance anytime someone had a gripe against a gay servicemember.’’
Sue Fulton, an out gay veteran and graduate of West Point, added that Bill Clinton is probably sick of being blamed for DADT and the corner he was pushed into by congressional Republicans.
’’Too many people in the gay community blame him for a policy that was in principal a decent compromise. The problem was that the policy wasn’t implemented as promised,’’ said Fulton. ’’Perhaps he’s more culpable for DOMA than DADT, but it’s hard now to remember the political climate of that time and how much things have changed.’’
Indeed, while the political climate of the 1990s has been blamed more than Clinton for the implementation of DADT, it is his signing of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act for which he has faced continued criticism.
It was shortly after midnight, Sept. 21, 1996, when Clinton signed DOMA in what was a highly expansive and intrusive federal ’’power grab’’ that forbid federal recognition of same-sex marriages in all states.
In a statement released one day before signing DOMA into law, Clinton hinted at his qualms with the bill.
’’Throughout my life I have strenuously opposed discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans,’’ Clinton said. ’’I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages and this legislation is consistent with that position.’’
In the same statement, Clinton affirmed his support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and urged Congress to pass that legislation.
’’I also want to make clear to all that the enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation,’’ Clinton said. ’’Discrimination, violence and intimidation for that reason, as well as others, violate the principle of equal protection under the law and have no place in American society.’’
It was not popular to oppose DOMA in 1996. Congress approved the bill overwhelmingly with only 14 Democrats voting against the bill in the Senate. Although the act was largely meaningless at first, that changed as the fight for marriage equality expanded. When Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, those couples were denied more than 1,000 benefits enjoyed by married straight couples because of DOMA.
Interrupted by a question from gay blogger Lane Hudson during a speech at the 2009 Netroots Nation conference, Clinton said signing DOMA was meant to head off an attempt by the Republican-controlled Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
’’I didn’t like signing DOMA, and I certainly didn’t like the constraints it would put on benefits, and I’ve done everything I could,’’ Clinton said, adding public opinion is shifting rapidly on LGBT rights. But for advocates that doesn’t make it right.
’’He should not have signed it,’’ Richard Socarides told Metro Weekly. Socarides, who advised Clinton on gay and lesbian civil rights issues, urged Clinton publicly and privately not to sign the bill, but says those were different times. ’’If you look at DOMA with respect to what happened, it was a Republican campaign tactic and there was no opposition to it in the Congress, so had he vetoed it, it would have passed again.’’
With more Americans accepting gay and lesbian couples as the norm in modern America, Clinton appears well aware of the stain DOMA has left on his legacy. His decision not to mention DOMA in his convention speech puzzled some and angered others.
’’Where’s your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?’’ asked New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in an open letter to Clinton published in December.
’’At the Democratic National Convention, on the campaign trail, in speeches aplenty and during interviews galore, you spoke eloquently about what this country should value, and you spoke unequivocally about where it should head,’’ Bruni wrote. ’’Such a bounty of convictions, such a harvest of words, except for one that’s long overdue: Sorry.’’
Writing in New York magazine last February, Frank Rich noted that Clinton made no mention of DOMA in his thousand-page memoir, My Life.
’’While ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ can be rationalized (by some) as a bungled rookie effort at compromise during his early months in office, DOMA is indefensible,’’ Rich wrote.
Clinton has never ’’wholly owned up’’ to approving DOMA, as Bruni put it, although he has affirmed his support for marriage equality since then. During an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2009, Clinton admitted that he was wrong about same-sex marriage and he has lent his voice to some marriage-equality efforts in recent years. In a statement released by the Human Rights Campaign in May 2011, Clinton endorsed New York’s same-sex marriage bill. The following May, Clinton recorded an audio advertisement opposing North Carolina’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was ultimately approved by voters.
’’I think that President Clinton has done a lot and I think he’s pretty much done everything anyone has asked him to do,’’ said Socarides. ’’Considering it’s fairly rare for a former president to say that he regrets an official action he took during his presidency, that is a fairly significant concession or admission and has helped affect public opinion in a positive way.’’
’’For me personally, saying that a law you signed was wrong and should be repealed is enough of an apology for me,’’ Socarides added.
Nevertheless, Clinton has largely been in the background of the LGBT-rights movement. And now, with the Supreme Court set to rule on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8, questions remain as to why one of the most popular politicians alive today has not played a more visible role in the fight for equality.
"Just as it helped enormously when General Powell finally reversed his position on DADT, it would be very helpful to have President Clinton state his support for the right for civil marriage to be available to same sex couples,’’ wrote Elizabeth Birch in an email to Metro Weekly.
Birch, who led HRC during the DOMA fight in the 1990s, said that while DOMA was clearly a ’’strategic move by Republicans at the time to drive a wedge between his Administration and LGBT base,’’ Clinton’s popularity could lend even more momentum to the growing movement for equality.
’’Given that President Clinton’s voice is so vibrant today on all the critical issues of our time, his support could be a critical element on our path to full marriage equality. And, of course, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s voice carries incredible authority on any topic. Her global speech on human rights for LGBT people was breathtaking," said Birch.
Bill Clinton has yet to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision to consider the constitutionality of DOMA. Requests for comment from Metro Weekly were not returned, although no one doubts he hopes to see the law bearing his signature struck down.
Socarides speculates that Clinton will weigh in, as will Hillary Clinton - after she leaves her post as secretary of state - as the spotlight on DOMA and marriage equality grows with the Supreme Court’s attention. Traditionally, a standing secretary of state does not discuss domestic policy.
’’I will guarantee you that in the briefs that the Supreme Court is going to get on our side, including from the Justice Department and from the plaintiffs, they are going to have a section in there that talks about the fact that President Clinton, who signed the law, now thinks it was a mistake,’’ said Socarides. ’’The fact that he supports repeal of the law will be a significant and important part of the argument to the justices. And I think it will be persuasive.’’