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Too Late for Apologies? Bill Clinton for Now Opposing DOMA

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Tuesday Mar 12, 2013
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Bloggers and pundits are weighing in about former President Bill Clinton’s recent op-ed piece for the Washington Post in which he urged the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton signed the bill into law in 1996.

Clinton’s op-ed expressed his having come to the conclusion -- 17 years later -- that DOMA is, in fact, not in agreement with the U.S. Constitution (which, he fails to point out, he swore to uphold at two inaugurations). What has really infuriated many activists, however, is his claim that he only approved DOMA in order to avoid legislation that would have made things worse for the LGBT community.

In the past 17 years, DOMA has proved to be an ongoing nightmare for LGBT Americans. Although same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, such couples are subject to a myriad of restrictions on the federal level. They have to file separate federal taxes and have to go through hoops regarding everything from adoptions to estate taxes.

Clinton went through a bruising experience early in his administration when he unsuccessfully tried to repeal the ban on openly serving military personnel but instead ended up with DADT as a compromise. After that run-in with Congress, many scholars and LGBT activists believe that he decided to put LGBT rights on the back burner.

The op-ed piece expresses Cinton’s volte-face on marriage equality. He believes the American public’s views on marriage equality have changed enough to accept this. He also has come to the conclusion that the law discriminates against same-sex couples, which apparently did not occur to him previously.

"As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution," he writes. Many, however, have rejected Clinton’s piece as political expediency and are particularly infuriated by that "I have come to believe" as ingenious at best.

In his Huffington Post column, Michelangelo Signorile accused Clinton of signing DOMA because "he refused to be leader on a civil rights issue, irrationally fearful of the ramifications of vetoing the bill and rationalizing the damage caused by signing it."

Clinton’s "refusal to take leadership really goes back to day one of his presidency," Signorile wrote. "That was when he signaled to the GOP, like a frightened person on the street signals fear to a barking dog, that he was deathly afraid of the gay issue and would not be a leader on it."

Speculation swirls around why he even decided to write it. "Better late than never I suppose," wrote a commenter with the handle The Professor on Joe My God. "He neglects to mention he also signed DOMA to help himself get re elected in an ugly campaign, but hey... we’ll take it,"

Another reader speaks for many observers when he pointed out that Clinton’s actions may well be tied to his very active promotion of his wife to become the second Clinton to become president. Bill Clinton’s behind-the-scenes dissing of Barak Obama early in his wife’s aborted 2008 bid threw a shadow over the former president’s liberal credentials.

"I’m still waiting for a real apology and I believe this is completely calculated, Bill just making nice with the gays to smooth Hillary’s prospects in 2016," another commenter wrote.

Kevin Naff, editor-in-chief of the Washington Blade, opined that Clinton’s late-in-the-game mea culpa is a "typically cynical, desperate bid to rewrite history."

Naff dismissed Clinton’s op-ed as "a naked attempt to get on the right side of history before the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA. He sounds desperate, highlighting the fact that ’DOMA came to my desk, opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress.’

"That only makes his support worse," Naff added. "At least 81 other politicians at the time had the sense and foresight to oppose the discriminatory measure. The op-ed, of course, contains no apology from Clinton for enacting the most hideous piece of anti-gay legislation ever conceived in this country."

In an rare meeting of the minds, leaders of the Religious Right joined LGBT advocates in their criticism -- albeit coming at it from a very different perspective.

Conservative blogger Power Line echoed the Washington Blade editor’s sentiments. "What Clinton in has in mind is history," the blogger noted. "That arbiter already has him pegged as lawless cynic anyway. So why not try to explain away his endorsement of DOMA, and get on what he assumes eventually will be the prevailing side by hopping abroad the gay marriage express before it arrives at the station?"

Anti-gay activist Michael Brown on conservative website Townhall dredged up
the Right’s arguments that same-sex marriage is not only not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution but is antithetical to (what they see as) fundamental American values.

"Do you honestly believe, Mr. Clinton, that any of the framers of the Constitution countenanced a day in our great nation when men would be marrying men and women marrying women, and in the name of the Constitution, at that?" Brown wrote.

"Since when did our Constitution guarantee the government’s endorsement of all romantic attractions and sexual behaviors?" Brown added. "Are you genuinely unaware that redefining marriage is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive societal transformation in the name of LGBT rights, including the undoing of gender distinctions?"

Richard Socarides, who was an aide to Clinton during his presidency, has often found himself on the defensive for being an out-gay man who stood by while Clinton signed away LGBT couples’ rights on his watch. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that he mounted a spirited defense of his former boss in The New Yorker.

"The essay, a Clinton associate told me, was Clinton’s own idea; he wrote it out himself in longhand on a legal pad," wrote Socarides. As an experienced White House aide, has first-hand experience of how often presidents often have their material ghost written, Socarides that Clinton actually wrote it himself. (Socarides seems to overlook the fact that anyone who writes in longhand on a legal pad is going to expect someone else to type it out on a computer, which presumably includes lots of heavy edits.)

In sum total, Socarides apologia for Clinton’s actions amounts to what he dismisses as "a simple answer": "He got boxed in by political opponents"; and "his campaign positions on gay rights ran ahead of public opinion."

In a March 8 Salon article, however, Steve Kornacki decimates such arguments. Kornacki brings up the increasingly prevalent view of Clinton by presidential scholars and others as a cynical political operator.

Kornacki refers back, to devastating effect, Clinton’s ads that ran on Christian radio stations. The Clinton campaign didn’t hesitate to cite DOMA as proof that the Democrat shared "our values." The ads were only pulled after a storm of criticism from his supporters. "The episode illustrated the political utility Clinton saw in his decision to sign DOMA," Kornacki concludes.

Even more damning, Kornacki cited a Newsweek account of Clinton’s advice to John Kerry during the unsuccessful presidential campaign of the then-Massachusetts senator and current Secretary of State against George W. Bush: "Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the red states, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with (Sen. John) Kerry, urged the senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, "I’m not going to ever do that.’"

Neither Clinton nor Socarides have responded to the criticism.

Comments

  • danpianoman, 2013-03-12 14:52:20

    ’ingenious" or "disingenuous"?


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