photo by Keith Kissel
National Public Radio is not usually the venue in which most people expect to see a high-profile Democrat seemingly cornered.
Yet “cornered” is exactly the adjective that came to mind when listening to a recent interview on “Fresh Air,” the long-running interview program produced by WHYY in Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton got rather testy with the show’s host, Terry Gross, when Gross pressed her on her conversion regarding same-sex marriage.
Gross asked, following up a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, “So, just to clarify […] Would you say your view evolved since the ‘90s, or that the American public evolved, allowing you to state your real view?”
Gross’ question, and the questions that preceded and followed, presupposed that Clinton always favored same-sex marriage privately but opposed it publicly for political reasons. Yet Clinton first evaded with generalizations about the state of marriage equality in 1996, when her husband signed DOMA into law, saying that “not that many” people supported same-sex marriage at the time. When Gross continued to ask about Clinton’s personal views in 1996 and after, Clinton’s tone became sharp, and she outright denied the idea that she believed in marriage equality at the time but kept her view to herself because of the political climate.
In essence, Clinton’s response to Gross was that she was a bigot rather than a dissembler, and that she cannot be blamed for not being out in front of the issue that early. Yet the message she delivered most clearly was that she did not appreciate being put in a position of having to choose one characterization over the other, claiming Gross was putting words in her mouth. The once and possibly future presidential candidate blamed the entire country, except for a few unnamed saintly souls, for having shared her bigotry, and resisted all attempts to narrow the question down to her own views or actions.
This is all nonsense, of course. It was patently clear that then-President Bill Clinton did not agree with DOMA personally at the time it was passed. It was clear even before he followed through on his pledge to sign it into law, as I observed in my firm’s newsletter, Sentinel, back in 1996. He was not willing to give up potential votes during his re-election campaign, but the idea that his personal convictions led him to support the law does not hold up in light of his other actions, both at the time and since.
In her “Fresh Air” interview, Clinton asserted that “marriage had always been a matter left to the states.” But DOMA did not leave the matter with the states; it rejected gay marriage outright for federal purposes, and told states they were not required to recognize such marriages from states that allowed them. Today were are still working through the legal mess left in DOMA’s wake, even after the Supreme Court struck down key provisions in United States v. Windsor.
Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. But Clinton continued to oppose it during her presidential run in 2008, and did not come out in favor until after President Obama’s conversion in 2012. If we take her claim in the interview with Gross at face value, she opposed marriage equality privately, as well as publicly, until 2013. If true, that is not a failure to be ahead of the curve; that is remaining significantly behind it.
Clinton’s reaction to Gross put me in mind of her husband’s angry denial that he had had “sexual relations with that woman” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Lots of politicians, not only the Clintons, get annoyed when someone tries to put them in a corner. In this case, though, there was a simple escape route. If her current description of herself is true, Clinton need only say, “I was bigoted, and I was wrong.”
It would be nice if she would refrain from blaming the rest of the country for her own failings, however. Despite her protests, there were plenty of people who, like me, said DOMA was wrong even before it was signed into law and who continued to oppose it until the courts struck it down. A Gallup poll from 1999, quoted recently by the Atlantic, suggested that about 35 percent of Americans, roughly 98 million people, supported gay marriage that year, five years before Massachusetts became the first state to allow it. Being late to join the cause of marriage equality is certainly better than never joining it at all, but tardiness on the issue is nothing to be proud of.
On the other hand, it is harder still to say, “I’m a politician; I have to tell people what they want to hear even if it isn’t what I believe.” It may be the truth, but that stance is not a hallmark of a leader, and Clinton wants to at least keep her options open to run for office as the most important leader we have. So she is more willing to claim, albeit in the midst of a question-dodging answer, that she sincerely held a bigoted position than to acknowledge that her public positions are blown by the winds of focus groups and poll results.
Better to look wrong than weak, perhaps, but while she contemplates her career options, Clinton has no interest in looking either. Which probably explains her irritation at Gross, who neglected to play her part as the fawning journalist just hoping she will be lucky enough to have Clinton announce her next run for the White House on “Fresh Air.”