What a year you’ve had, the kind that really burnishes a legend. 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. Such a bounty of convictions, such a harvest of words, except for one that’s long overdue: Sorry.
Where’s your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?
And why, amid all the battles you’ve joined, and with all the energy you’ve been able to muster, haven’t you made a more vigorous case for same-sex marriage, especially in light of your history on this issue?
You fret about your legacy, as any president would. For turning a blind eye to the butchery in Rwanda, you struggled through a mea culpa of sorts, and after Barack Obama seemed to lavish higher praise on Ronald Reagan than on you, you seethed.
Well, DOMA, which says that the federal government recognizes only marriages of a man and a woman, is one of the uglier blemishes on your record, an act of indisputable discrimination that codified unequal treatment of gay men and lesbians and, in doing so, validated the views of Americans who see us as lesser people. If our most committed, heartfelt relationships don’t measure up, then neither do we. If how we love is suspect, then so is who we are. No two ways to interpret that. No other conclusion to be drawn.
In 1996, with an overblown worry about your re-election and a desire not to seem too liberal, you put your name to that execrable decree. And you’ve never wholly owned up to that, never made adequate amends. It’s past time, and it’s almost time for Hillary, who is about to step down as secretary of state, to catch up with other cabinet members and President Obama and make her presumed support for same-sex marriage explicit, which she has never done.
Her role as the nation’s senior diplomat discourages her from wading into domestic political matters: that’s the tradition and etiquette. But the gag order will soon be lifted, and I could make the case that it’s irrelevant anyway; that marriage equality is a matter of human rights, not politics; and that she’s powerful and beloved enough to have said whatever she wanted, at least once Obama finally laid down his marker.
In any case she, like you, has been largely on the sidelines during this vital chapter in our country’s march toward greater social justice. What a shame, given that no two people have been larger in the Democratic Party over the last quarter-century and given the party’s deserved pride in its embrace of same-sex marriage now. The two of you should be a more integral part of that pride. You should be at the very epicenter of this. It’s strange and it’s sad that you’re not.
DOMA is a nasty bit of business, in practical as well as symbolic terms. It denies federal pension, health care and medical leave benefits — among many other protections and considerations — to same-sex couples who have been legally married in the growing number of states that permit it. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, those couples are singles and when one dies, the survivor has to pay estate taxes, for example, that heterosexual widows and widowers don’t.
This disparate treatment has rightly come under legal challenge, and many federal courts have now ruled that it violates the Constitution’s equal-protection clause. The Supreme Court late last week weighed which, if any, of these cases to take. An announcement is expected soon. With any luck, the nation’s highest court will dismantle DOMA, a decision that wouldn’t create marriage equality coast to coast but would change the tenor of debate in states considering the legalization of same-sex marriage.
After you signed DOMA — which, it must be said, a large majority of Democrats in Congress also supported — your defensiveness often trumped any suggestion of regret. As recently as 2008 you claimed that it’s a rewrite of history “to imply that somehow this was anti-gay.” You dodged the subject in your 2004 memoir, “My Life,” whose 957 pages didn’t include any mention of DOMA, as Frank Rich noted in New York magazine last February.
IN 2009 you at last said that DOMA should be wiped off the books and you endorsed same-sex marriage, getting out ahead of many Democrats who still had elections to worry about and weren’t yet seeing, in polls, as much public support for same-sex marriage as they wanted to see. But your comments since then have been sparse and succinct: no more than a written statement in favor of the 2011 bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, your home since you left the White House, and a recorded phone message urging North Carolinians last spring not to adopt a ban on same-sex marriage in their state Constitution, which they did anyway.
At the convention in Charlotte three months ago, in remarks that sprawled over 48 minutes, you seemed to find room for just about everything but same-sex marriage. President Obama mentioned the issue in his speech. So did Michelle Obama in hers. But nothing from you, and no particular advocacy or fund-raising for the marriage-equality referendums that were on the ballot on Nov. 6 and were considered such a crucial moment for the cause. You presented a mum, behind-the-curve contrast to the next generation of Democratic standard-bearers like Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, and Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor, whose pleas for marriage equality underscore a new reality: no Democrat, not even Hillary, will be able to make a credible bid for the party’s presidential nomination without supporting it.
A leader can’t be expected to champion every big issue. He or she picks and chooses. But your shortage of words about same-sex marriage this year is noteworthy in the context of how expansively you talked about so many other topics, how omnipresent you were: the cover of Time, the cover of Esquire, CNBC, the Golf Channel.
It’s even more noteworthy because you have a wrong to right here. I say that in sorrow more than anger, and with gratitude for all you accomplished during your presidency, a successful one. You had a zest for politicking that the current president doesn’t, enormous powers of persuasion and an instinct for the center. Maybe DOMA was the center in 1996. It isn’t anymore.
On Hillary’s watch, the State Department has been more progressive in its treatment of L.G.B.T. employees than before, a development in sync with her proclamation in Geneva late last year that “gay rights are human rights” and that those rights are a priority in American diplomacy. She addressed many of those employees on Wednesday, at an event marking the 20th anniversary of an organization called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and she implored her audience “to leave this celebration thinking about what more each and every one of you can do” to promote better, fairer treatment of gay people.
Well, she can do more. So can you, President Clinton.
I was sloppy at the start. What I and many others want most from you isn’t really an apology. It’s full membership — and, better yet, leadership — in a movement that’s headed inexorably in the right direction, with or without you.