New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 26, 2013
WASHINGTON >> He had just flown across the country after an exhausting campaign day in Oregon and South Dakota, landing at the White House after dark. But President Bill Clinton still had more business before bed. He picked up a pen and scrawled out his name, turning a bill into law.
It was 10 minutes before 1 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, 1996, and there were no cameras, no ceremony. The witching-hour timing bespoke both political calculation and personal angst. With his signature, federal law now defined marriage as the union of a man and woman. Clinton considered it a gay-baiting measure, but was unwilling to risk re-election by vetoing it.
For nearly 17 years since, that middle-of-the-night moment has haunted Clinton, the source of tension with friends, advisers and gay rights supporters. He tried to explain, defend and justify. He asked for understanding. Then he inched away from it bit by bit. Finally this month, he disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act entirely, urging the law be overturned by the Supreme Court, which takes up the matter Wednesday on the second of two days of arguments devoted to same-sex marriage issues.
Rarely has a former president declared that an action he took in office violated the Constitution. But Clinton’s journey from signing the Defense of Marriage Act to repudiating it mirrors larger changes in society as same-sex marriage has gone from a fringe idea to majority support.
“President Clinton has evolved on this issue just like every American has evolved,” said Chad Griffin, who worked as a junior press aide in Clinton’s White House and now heads the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s most prominent gay rights organization.
Not every American has evolved in the same way Clinton has. A sizable proportion of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage, and to them Clinton’s turnabout is a betrayal of sorts. But neither supporters nor opponents find it entirely surprising, since both sides assumed the former president had signed the bill out of politics rather than principle.
Clinton was the first president to openly court gay Americans. He met an openly gay man for the first time at Oxford in 1968 when a fellow Rhodes scholar, Paul Parish, revealed himself as gay. “He always had gay friends,” Parish recalled last week. “He’s always wanted to do the right things by gays.”
As a presidential candidate in 1991, Clinton flew to California for a meeting arranged by political strategist David Mixner and other gay rights supporters. “They were pretty skeptical of the governor of Arkansas, as you can imagine,” recalled Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s campaign chairman at the time. But over 2 1/2 hours, Kantor said Clinton won them over with “his empathy, his emotional connection.”
He tripped up in the early days of his presidency by underestimating the opposition to opening the military to gays and lesbians and accepted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise that required they keep their sexual orientation secret. So when Republicans proposed the Defense of Marriage Act in an election year, Clinton resolved not to get burned again.
The bill passed with overwhelming margins, enough to override a veto. He hoped to avoid calling attention to it with his post-midnight signature. Mike McCurry, the press secretary, got a call at home asking if they should wait until morning to announce it. “His posture was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year in 1996,” McCurry recalled.
Some gay supporters were outraged. Mixner, already alienated because of the military compromise, refused to attend the Democratic convention after Clinton made clear he would sign the bill. “He made a political calculation that was an immoral calculation,” Mixner recalled.
The schism widened when Clinton’s campaign broadcast ads on Christian radio in 15 states boasting that he had signed the Defense of Marriage Act. But most gay voters still voted for him, according to polls. His support for employment nondiscrimination legislation, AIDS funding and removing limits on security clearances for gay civilians outweighed what at the time seemed a more theoretical issue.
“People screamed as loud as they could inside the building and outside right up until the minute he signed it, and then when he signed it everybody moved on,” said Richard Socarides, then Clinton’s White House adviser on gay and lesbian issues.
In his second term, Clinton became the first president to address the Human Rights Campaign, and he nominated James Hormel as the first openly gay ambassador. “He stood up for me when he really didn’t have to,” Hormel said last week.
Clinton did not back off the marriage law. As late as 2004, when 11 states put measures against same-sex marriage on the ballot, Clinton privately advised John Kerry to endorse a constitutional ban, according to Newsweek’s history of the campaign. Matt McKenna, Clinton’s spokesman, called that account “completely false.”
Over time, though, Clinton heard again and again from gay friends. “In my conversations with him, he was personally embarrassed and remorseful,” said Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic strategist. “It makes him uncomfortable that something he’s responsible for has caused so much pain to so many people he genuinely cares about.”
By 2009, times had changed and so had polls. After a speech, Clinton said he had changed his mind.
He called Socarides that afternoon. “I think I’ve come out for same-sex marriage,” Clinton said.
When few noticed, Socarides found another way to call attention to it by suggesting to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he ask about it during an upcoming interview. Then without mentioning his own role, Socarides emailed Clinton’s top aide and suggested that he make sure the former president was prepared to talk about same-sex marriage because Anderson might ask.
“I realized that I was, you know, over 60 years old,” Clinton told Cooper. “I grew up in a different time.
And I was hung up about the word. And I had all these gay friends. I had all these gay couple friends.
And I was hung about it. And I decided I was wrong.”
Two years later, he endorsed legislation in New York legalizing same-sex marriage and last year taped a phone message urging voters in North Carolina to reject a ballot measuring banning such unions. But with the Supreme Court now taking up a challenge to part of the Defense of Marriage Act, he concluded he had to finally address the law he had helped enact.
While he declined to join a friend-of-the-court brief filed by former senators, Clinton wrote by hand an op-ed for The Washington Post. He said he signed the law to head off a worse outcome, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but realized now that “the law is itself discriminatory” and “it should be overturned.”
To supporters of the law, Clinton’s new position seemed as opportunistic as his original one did to the other side. His “shifting views on marriage are precisely why we have an independent judiciary,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. “The Constitution is not designed to shift with momentary political winds.”
To some gay supporters, the statement was inadequate. “I would like him to say that it was always wrong and, even if he felt forced into making a political calculation, he’s deeply sorry that it became the law,” said Elizabeth Birch, who headed the Human Rights Campaign in 1996.
Mixner agreed but said the change was enough. “The purpose of a movement is to change minds, not in some Stalinistic way to punish those who are not ideologically pure,” he said. “We created a safe place where he could change his mind.”