Historical Rewrites 

  
I haven’t mentioned politics too much on this blog lately, mainly because the Republican candidates are a scary bunch of clowns that seem like they are almost making a remake of Stephen King’s It. The Democratic candidates really don’t give us much of a choice, Bernie Sanders (even if he is my new Senator), doesn’t stand a chance in a national election, which leaves Hillary Clinton as the only real choice. I have to admit, I have never been a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I will support her for President.

On Friday night, Hillary Clinton was interviewed by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and I watched it. In that interview, Hillary really disappointed me. She did something that as a historian I find deplorable. She rewrote history to fit her current agenda.

“I think what my husband believed — and there was certainly evidence to support it — is that there was enough political momentum to amend the Constitution of the United States of America and that there had to be some way to stop that,” said Hillary Clinton. “In a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further.”

In comments the next day at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, Sanders called this a “rewrite” of history and said it was “not the case” that something worse was coming down the pike. Those who were in the trenches at the time agree.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said, “It is not accurate to explain DOMA as motivated by an attempt to forestall a constitutional amendment. There was no such serious effort in 1996.” At the time, Wolfson was an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“It’s ridiculous. There was no threat in the immediate vicinity of 1996 of a constitutional amendment. It came four years later,” said Elizabeth Birch, who was executive director of the Human Rights Campaign from 1995 to 2004. “It may be that she needs to revisit the facts of what happened.” Birch took Bill Clinton to task in 2013, clearly refuting this “defensive action” claim, and pointed to the radio ads. Now really, if DOMA was a “defensive action” taken for our own good, why was Clinton using it for his own good in radio ads in the South? At the time he signed DOMA, Clinton did call the bill “gay-baiting” and didn’t believe it was necessary. But he said he agreed with the substance of it: “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages, and this legislation is consistent with that position.”

Clinton’s campaign, on Monday, didn’t retreat from her underlying point, though offered a more forward-looking statement. “Whatever the context that led to the passage of DOMA nearly two decades ago, Hillary Clinton believes the law was discriminatory and both she and President Clinton urged that it be overturned,” said spokesman Brian Fallon. “As President, Hillary Clinton will continue to fight to secure full and equal rights for LGBT Americans who, despite all our progress, can still get married on a Saturday and fired on a Monday just because of who they are and who they love.”

Meanwhile, Richard Socarides, Bill Clinton’s former aide on gay rights issues, argued that “there is no question that President Clinton believed that one of the reasons he was willing to sign a bill that he did not like was because he thought he would prevent greater damage.”

This is a clear rewrite of history. Clinton actually announced he would sign DOMA in May 1996, several weeks before it passed the House. The news sparked angry protest among gay rights allies. A co-chair of the president’s re-election campaign in Washington state quit. But others in the Democratic Party viewed it as crass, albeit excusable, pragmatism.

Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told HuffPost in May of this year that Republicans had settled on gay marriage as a wedge issue in the 1996 elections and that Clinton “gave in” on DOMA to take it out of play. “They were the major villains,” Frank said of congressional Republicans. “He went along with them.”

This assessment is shared by Socarides, who said that Republicans were “hoping that Clinton would veto [DOMA] on constitutional grounds and that they could then say he was secretly for gay marriage even though he had articulated the opposite position.”

But that take is complicated by an October 1996 radio ad in which Clinton’s campaign highlighted his signature on the legislation.

Well before the bill reached Clinton’s desk, it was abundantly clear that a veto of the measure would be unsustainable. The president wasn’t the only one to make this calculation. A month before DOMA passed the House, The New York Times reported on a fissure within the gay rights movement: One camp was committed to fighting DOMA, and the other argued for focusing on amendments to make it more palatable since it would pass anyway.

In June, DOMA passed the House by a 342-67 vote margin. In September, the Senate passed the bill by an 85-14 margin (it was noted that 20 of those senators had been divorced). That meant each chamber had a supermajority to override any veto. On Sept. 21, 1996, Clinton signed the bill in the dark of night and avoided having it recorded on camera. 

Bill Clonton was convinced that lawmakers pushing DOMA were perfectly willing to trample on gay rights if it meant they’d have a better campaign landscape. But at the time, he was also personally opposed to expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples. The day after DOMA cleared the House, White House press secretary Mike McCurry referred to it as “gay baiting pure and simple,” but also said Clinton would sign it if it didn’t change radically before it reached his desk because “he believes frankly that the underlying position in the bill is right.”

Some who criticized Hillary Clinton for her explanation of the ’96 vote also praised her for having a strong record on LGBT rights during her own career, but I wish that Clinton would simply admit that DOMA was a mistake and not try to create alternate rationalizations for its passage. Hillary needs to say that the Clinton administration was wrong on DOMA in 1996. It was not good in any way in terms of constitutional law, and it certainly hurt a lot of Americans. She needs to admit the mistake and just say it. Own it. Stop this revisionist history.

A friend of mine reminded me that now is a different time, and everyone’s evolved and understands what the cultural and political reality was then, and what it is now. The Clintons may not have been leaders in gay rights back in the 1990s, but they are now. That doesn’t mean that she can rewrite history. Hillary Clinton should simply say this: “Yes, after the fact, years later, some Democrats used DOMA to forestall a constitutional amendment when it came up — saying that we don’t need an amendment because we have DOMA — but no, a possible amendment was not something that was a rationale for signing DOMA in 1996. My husband did think DOMA was the result of GOP gay-baiting and unnecessary. But he agreed on the substance of it, as did the majority of Americans and the vast majority of Democrats. And we were all wrong. We evolved, as has our current president and the American public. And I’m glad to see DOMA gone.”

A politician gets a lot more respect from me when they are honest, own their mistakes, and resist spinning their mistakes to rewrite history.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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