Clinton’s Take on Gay Marriage Today

The former president’s new rationalizations on DOMA are a futile effort to redeem his tarnished legacy.

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I wrote in No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner about Bill Clinton’s 2004 advice to John Kerry that he should consider supporting a ban on same sex marriage. I’m obviously not the only source: Newsweek independently reported the story eight years ago. My book came out six years ago and no one denied the accounts then or since then—until now. A Clinton spokesman told The New York Times that the anecdote was completely false. But the story is true and I stand by it. The long silence speaks more powerfully than a pro forma, convenient denial at this late date.

I don’t even see the point of the denial. Attempting to rewrite the history—tortured rationalizations for Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act in the first place, a reflex defensiveness about advice in 2004 that was wrong in principle and even politically—seems a futile effort to redeem a tarnished part of a presidential legacy. I applaud Bill Clinton’s change of position—and that change highlights where we are now and where our country should and will go. A movement for equality should welcome converts, and his statement that the law he signed is both discriminatory and unconstitutional is not only remarkable, but almost certainly unique in the annals of the presidency. That doesn’t alter what happened earlier, but it affirms and advances the progress we are making.

I admired John Kerry for being the only senator up for reelection in 1996 who voted against DOMA—and he was in a tough race. I admired his commitment to civil unions in 2004 and his refusal to advocate overturning the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality—which Kerry subsequently endorsed. So has Bill Clinton and so do nearly 60 percent of our people. No one, or almost no one, predicted the speed and breadth with which our society has moved ahead.

There were early voices for justice on this issue—in the gay community and among others, and even from a few leaders like Ted Kennedy. There were those who lagged behind out of incomprehension, political calculation, or timidity. It is a tribute to the basic values of liberty and justice for all that we are now in a very different place. And it validates Dr. King’s belief, quoting Scripture, that “justice rolls down like waters.” But that doesn’t mean it washes away the past; instead it opens the way to a future where America will be more fully and truly America.