Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bill Clinton: Representative or Opportunist?

Last week, I wrote an editorial urging people to celebrate Senator Rob Portman for coming about on the issue of gay marriage. This week, I wonder if Bill Clinton deserves the same consideration. On September 21, 1996, Bill Clinton quietly signed a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law. This law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) makes it legal for states to not recognize gay marriages even if they are validly performed under the laws of a state in which gay marriage is legal. The law also denies federal marriage benefits that are given to straight couples. Now, 17 years later, Bill Clinton came out to say that DOMA is unconstitutional and urge the Supreme Court to overturn it. Although they are both involved in politics, Bill Clinton and Rob Portman are two fairly different people. Portman is a conservative, a Republican senator whose son came out of the closet two years ago and helped him turn around on the issue of gay marriage. Bill Clinton is a liberal, a democrat who has been around gay people and had gay friends since 1968. Clinton is also the first democratic presidential candidate to court a gay vote. Nevertheless, unlike Rob Portman, who stood against the party line in publically announcing his support for gay marriage, Clinton “resolved not to get burned” in an election year. He signed DOMA in the middle of the night without a public ceremony to avoid drawing attention to it. His supporters acknowledge and applaud Clinton’s evolution, citing the courage it takes for a President to admit that something he did while in office was unconstitutional. Others claim that Clinton’s latest anti-DOMA statements are as self-serving and opportunistic as his support of DOMA was in 1996. The reality is that the country was not ready to support gay marriage in 1996. Even in 2013, it is arguable that the majority that supports gay marriage is slim (with only 53% in favor). Bill Clinton signed a law that was representative of the attitude of the country at the time, and that is what a leader of the United States, a representative republic, is elected to do. Clinton now supports gay marriage, echoing the attitude of the rest of the country. On the other hand, our Constitution is built with certain safeguards to avoid the creation of a tyranny of the majority. Our history is full of defining moments in which we have created greater protections for minority groups and opinions. It seems to me that Bill Clinton chose politics over conscience. Twice. Though I believe that Bill Clinton sincerely supports marriage equality in 2013, I doubt he would have spoken out in its favor if public attitudes weren’t as open and accepting as they are. Perhaps it is his job to speak for the public only when there is majority support for what he’s saying, but a politician is not a puppet either. Politicians, presidents especially, are elected to represent the people, but also to lead.


  1. I agree that Bill Clinton chose politics. Past presidents seem to become statesmen and their thoughts suddenly become deified. His presidency had no world changing decisions made...he was at times an embarrassment. But the fact that he and Hillary came out in favor of gay marriage is a good thing. If it changes one person's mind, it will have accomplished something. We all change in life. I know that I have, and I want to thank my daughter, grandsons, cousins and their partners and friends for helping me. I believe that marriage is a right, not something that a judge or judges can decide. Marriage is the commitment between TWO PEOPLE who LOVE each other and wish to share their lives. What makes one person able to get married? Their religious beliefs, their sex? Look around the world is changing, and this change is for the better. So thanks President Clinton, whatever your reason, I am glad you expressed it.

  2. Also, Rob Portman's change of heart was from the heart, not from the political advantage, for sure!

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ernestine. I'm glad that Bill Clinton came around and made his recent public statements, but he still should have done the right thing far sooner.