Hillary Clinton on gay marriage: did she evolve, or just wait?

Carolyn Moynihan
19 June 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Hillary Clinton has written a big book about herself called Hard Choices, which outlines her four years as secretary of state during President Obama's first term. In it she addresses really difficult issues such as the invasion of Iraq (which she supported) and her handling of the 2012 killings of four Americans, including America's ambassador, by militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

But one of the hardest choices she has had to make during her political career does not seem to be mentioned in her 600-page doorstopper: whether to support same-sex marriage. Although the issue was in front of her from the mid-1990s - President Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act in 1996, saying that he had "long opposed same-gender marriage" a stance he has since repudiated - it was not until March last year that Mrs Clinton came out publicly in support of gay marriage.

What took her so long? After all, she claims in her book that gay rights - or, as she prefers to say, LGBT rights - have been one of pet concerns. Was she, like her husband, against gay marriage initially and only gradually came to accept it? Or did she see the light some time ago, perhaps from the beginning, while being unable to come out as a gay marriage supporter because Americans generally were not in favour of it - in other words, for political reasons?

This is what NPR public radio host Terry Gross sought to clarify during an interview with Clinton about her book last week, only to meet with evasion and weasel words from the former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State and probable second-time presidential candidate. This should be a warning to those backing her.

It does not seem that Gross set out to embarrass her guest. She assumed that, consistent with her human rights profile, Clinton had long "believed in" gay marriage but felt that she couldn't acknowledge it publicly. She asked:

So what's it like when you're in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage that you actually believe in? You obviously feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights. But in doing the calculus you decided you couldn't support it.

Clinton replied:

Well, I think you're reading it very wrong.

I think, as I said, just as the president has said, just because you're a politician doesn't mean you're not a thinking human being. You gather information. You think through positions. You're not 100 percent set, thank goodness. You're constantly re-evaluating where you stand, that was true for me, we talked earlier about Iraq .... So for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states. And in many of the conversations that I and my colleagues and supporters had I fully endorsed the efforts by activists to work state by state. And in fact that is what is working. And I think that being in the position I was in the Senate, fighting employment discrimination which we still have some ways to go, was appropriate at that time. As secretary of state I was out of domestic politics, and I was certainly doing all I could on the international scene to raise the importance of the human rights of the LGBT community.

And then leaving that position I was able to very quickly announce that I was fully in support of gay marriage. And that it is now continuing to succeed state by state. I am very hopeful that we will make progress and see even more change and acceptance. One of my big problems right now is that too many people believe they have a direct line to the divine and never want to change their minds about anything. They're never open to new information and they like to operate in an evidence free zone. And I think it's good if people continue to change.

From this we learn that Clinton privately endorsed the "state by state" campaign for gay marriage in the 2000s -- even though she did not support it in the Senate, nor during her presidential run in 2008, or until she had resigned from political office early last year. Which seems to add up to exactly what Gross suggested: the right of homosexual couples to marry was a personal belief whose time had not yet come politically.

Clinton's evasion does not satisfy Gross, who presses her to say whether she "evolved" on the issue (changed her mind) or whether it was the American public that changed (and thus allowed Clinton to come out). Clinton first burbles about how "we all evolved" but eventually gets annoyed and says:

I think you're trying to say I used to be opposed and now I'm in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that's just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel that you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue. And I am proud of what I've done and the progress we're making.

Gross makes one more bid for a straight answer:

GROSS: You know, I'm saying, I'm sorry, I just want to clarify what I was saying, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, you know, believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn't ready yet and you couldn't say it. That's what I was saying.

CLINTON: No, that's not, no. That is not true.

GROSS: Okay.

CLINTON: I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don't think you probably did either. This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly but surely convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.

Which surely means, "I did not agree with it at first but gradually changed my mind".

There are two problems with this - at least two.

Firstly, the "I'm just another American who evolved" line contradicts Clinton's earlier boast that after DOMA "I fully endorsed the efforts by activists to work state by state". This can only mean that she was encouraging a movement she did not yet believe in and barely understood. Is that a trait Americans want in a future president?

Secondly, it makes her look a lot less smart than she is. Hillary Rodham Clinton has had a brilliant career. She graduated from Yale law school and practised as a lawyer. She has headed corporate and communal organisations and moved in top political circles for decades. She has published academic articles and half a dozen books. She has been Secretary of State. She has made human rights, which for her include gay/LGBT rights, her special project and spoken on the subject all around the world.

And yet, to judge by her final response to Gross, it took her nearly two decades to understand the "rightness" of same-sex marriage. That does not add up.

What was it that Clinton finally understood in early 2013 that she did not fully grasp in 1996 or 2003 or 2008?

Here's a guess: the momentum of a campaign that has grown its suppor t from 39 percent to 54 percent of Americans since 2008; from a bare 50 percent to 67 percent among Democrats; and from 19 percent to 32 percent even among Republicans. As leading gay writer Andrew Sullivan says of the Clintons: "As long as marriage equality hurt the Democrats, they were against it. Now it may even hurt Republicans, they're for it. So Hillary is for it now."

It is believable that, a long time ago, Hillary Clinton wrestled with the idea that people of the same sex could be married. Nearly everyone did. It is clear, however, that she soon got used to the idea and privately promoted it. But she waited until there was healthy majority support among Democrats and a presidential bid in the offing to publicly endorse gay marriage.

Terry Gross called this by its correct name: political calculation. To how many other critical issues would a "President Hillary Clinton" apply this strategy? Will Americans risk finding out?