At a town hall debate during the 1992 presidential campaign, a woman famously asked the candidates how they were personally affected by the national debt. President Bush stumbled, seemingly offended by her implication that he faced no repercussions because of his wealth. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton asked the woman how her life was affected, then told her he knew people who had lost their jobs and small businesses that had gone belly-up. He may have won the election with this response.
Clinton’s ability to “feel your pain” separated him from the rarefied Bushes and Reagans, helping him keep his popularity through countless scandals and snafus. That compassion, though, was sorely missing Saturday night, when the 42nd president received GLAAD’s Advocate for Change Award in Los Angeles.
The president got the award, ostensibly, for his efforts to bring marriage equality to New York State, for recording messages urging North Carolinians to reject the antigay Amendment One, and for condemning two bills he signed into law: “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which barred out gays and lesbians from serving in the armed forces, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
It was a calculated and clever gamble for GLAAD to give Clinton the award. Firstly, inviting a president, especially one as beloved as Clinton, would undoubtedly get mucho media attention while snagging some big stars for their red carpet. The organization might have also thought the L.A. event could become a history-making moment, offering a forum for Clinton to take responsibility for these odious laws and provide context on why he signed them. Maybe he could share the regret he lived with back then, or possibly still lives with. We all know the world was different in the ’90s. But that podium — in front of an audience that wondered, like that woman at the town hall did, whether he’d been personally affected — was the perfect place for Clinton to share some perspective on DADT and DOMA and how things went awry.
Yes, Clinton already called for the Supreme Court, currently weighing the constitutionality of DOMA, to strike down the law in a Washington Post op-ed last month. “Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time,” he wrote in his second sentence. He provides some context to how the bill came about and calls it “blatant discrimination.” On Saturday, I and many others in the audience yearned for Clinton to reiterate that kind of explanation, to show some emotion that can’t be read off a laptop. That desire is modest compared to what others want from the former president. “As welcome as Clinton’s words are, there are two that are conspicuously absent: I’m sorry,” Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote after the op-ed’s publication. “Sorry for signing the bill. Sorry for crowing about it in radio ads on Christian radio stations during his ’96 reelection campaign. Sorry for the harm it has caused same-sex couples and the income inequality it exacerbates.”
On Saturday, Clinton spoke less about his presidency and more about how daughter Chelsea and her gay friends helped his views on LGBT issues evolve (not activists like David Mixner or his adminstration’s own adviser, Richard Socarides?) and gave a history lesson on how the nation is stumbling, not running, toward a more perfect union. Of DOMA, Clinton said again that the high court should toss it. “You signed it!” a heckler reminded him, though the words went unacknowledged.
“I want to keep working on this until not only DOMA is no longer the law of the land,” Clinton said, “but until all people, no matter where they live, can marry the people they love.”
How exactly this would be accomplished was not fleshed out. Clinton then moved on to the long-gestating Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which he reminded the audience he fought for during his presidency, and he called for LGBT-inclusive immigration reform and antibullying legislation. Great, wonderful. But there was an uncomfortable glossing over of his role in DOMA, not to mention DADT.
To his credit, the ban on out soldiers was a political compromise that followed Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt to integrate the military. Many in that ballroom knew the story behind DADT, so maybe he felt bringing it up was superfluous and backward-looking, especially since he’s previously said he regrets the now-repealed law. DOMA, though, is still very much alive, 17 and a half years after he quietly signed it in the middle of the night. How he inadvertently got caught up in the hysteria and fear over marriage equality is a perfect reminder of how diligent we must be to rise above the scrum of ignorance. That lesson, applicable now to everything from gun legislation to transgender rights, could have been conveyed in Los Angeles.
Clinton was never one to take much responsibility — see Monica Lewinsky — so many weren’t expecting a tearful apology on Saturday. But the president’s intransigence was jarring and appeared revisionist. Many men in their later years, especially presidents, are concerned with legacy-building, so it’s understandable that Clinton does not want his name associated with DOMA or DADT. But he had a very public opportunity to finally address his role in those nightmares, or at least one of them, and if he did so with a modicum of repentance, most LGBT people could finally forgive and move on. Instead, his continued refusal to accept responsibility smacks of not just guilt, it exposes a character flaw of a great man.
NEAL BROVERMAN is managing editor for The Advocate.