Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with Bill Clinton about same-sex marriage.
It didn't adhere to traditional interview guidelines, and it certainly
wasn't under the most professional of circumstances. But what
transpired between us can serve as an important lesson: that in a new
era of citizen journalism, regular people can make not only headlines,
but a palpable difference in advancing the causes for which they are
passionate. For me, that cause is equal marriage rights for LGBT
couples. And by a combination of assertiveness and dumb luck, I may
have pushed the national dialogue a bit farther along on the "arch of
history" we've been hearing a lot about lately.
As an amateur (and budding) journalist, I've learned to keep my
digital recorder with me whenever there's a chance that I might happen
across a story. So naturally, I had my device in tow while attending
the Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C., on July
Former President Bill Clinton gave the conference's keynote address,
and while his anecdotes about Haitian children were for the most part
entertaining and poignant, I couldn't shake a hankering for something
a bit more news-worthy. He didn't take questions after the speech, so
I decided I'd go try to ask him one myself.
Clinton had commented a month or so prior that his position on
same-sex marriage was "evolving," and I thought it might be worth a
shot to follow up on the current status of his thought processes. As
the former president made his way along the rope line, shaking hands
and posing for hurried photos, I asked him if he would commit his
support for same-sex marriage.
"I'm basically in support," he said into my recorder. "I don't think
any state should be suffering, and I think all these states that do it
should do it. It's not a federal question. I don't think the Congress
I interrupted, "But personally -- personally do you support it?"
"Yeah," he replied, with a modest degree of conviction.
And with that, I knew a story was in the making. But just to be
absolutely sure, I asked him again: "President Clinton, you personally
support same sex marriage?"
"I personally support people doing what they want to do," he said,
chuckling a bit. "I think that if people -- I think it's wrong for
someone to stop someone else from doing that. That's what I think."
Listen to the audio here:
The implications of this revelation are far-reaching, and may well
represent the "tipping point" in terms of public opinion on the issue
of same-sex marriage. Bill Clinton has always made a concerted effort
to situate himself firmly in the center of American politics; it was
how he governed as president, much to the chagrin of both the right
and the left, and it's how he's conducted himself since leaving
office. That the most prominent moderate politician in the country has
pledged his support would itself be enough of an indication that being
in favor of same-sex marriage is now a mainstream, somewhat
uncontroversial position. But there is deeper significance.
It was Bill Clinton who forever tarred his legacy on LGBT issues by
signing the radically discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in 1996;
he even campaigned on the legislation as part of his reelection bid.
It was Bill Clinton's relentless pursuit of the "middle-ground" that
we now have to thank for the denial of over 1,000 federal benefits to
same-sex couples whose relationships have been legally consecrated by
the states of Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont,
Maine, and New Hampshire. It was Bill Clinton who said that his
opposition to same-sex marriage "was not being reviewed or
And now, Bill Clinton supports same-sex marriage; personally, at that.
Does this constitute a seismic shift? I'd say so.
Over the past week, many in the blogosphere have been hesitant to
accept that the former president has had a genuine change of heart.
The reversal, they have claimed, reeks of the same political
opportunism and calculation that seemed to characterize much of his
presidency. And indeed, Clinton's endorsement was tepid, its
motivation inscrutable. He voiced it only when pressed at an
off-the-cuff student event, and in the aftermath has offered no
official comment or statement (despite my repeated requests).
But let's look at this with some perspective. We now have an American
president for the first time publicly acknowledging his support for
same sex-marriage, which even a few short years ago would have been
unthinkable. And by saying that he did not believe the issue was a
"federal question," Clinton has essentially disavowed the Defense of
Marriage Act, which for the first time made the issue... a federal
question. Now the author of the legislation, Bob Barr, the signer of
the legislation, Bill Clinton, and the current president, Barack
Obama, have all repudiated it. Everyone reading this should contact
their members of Congress, and urge them to also support its repeal.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the Freedom to Marry coalition,
recently suggested to me a strategy that would unquestionably be
effective in eliciting endorsements from elected officials whom we
suspect might personally favor same-sex marriage, but lack the
political will to say so publicly:
"Will you," we should ask them, "join the voices who have spoken up
even in the past few weeks, ranging from Dick Cheney, to Bill Clinton,
including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Education
Association, and the Episcopal Church?"
That's powerful, and demonstrates that it's now time to start thinking
of same-sex marriage as an issue that is not only politically tenable,
"Bill Clinton is in good and diverse company," Wolfson added. "His
voice is welcome, and he should raise it clearly and more often."
Here's to hoping that Clinton's press office will be pressured into
finally issuing an official statement.
And to anyone who might decry this revelation as irrelevant or
inconsequential, look no further than last Thursday's White House
press briefing, during which Robert Gibbs was pressed by ABC's Jake
Tapper about President Obama's position on same-sex marriage in light
of the Clinton reversal.
"I don't know if the president has seen it," Gibbs said. Rest assured
that he has now. And soon enough, his position will too "evolve."
So let's continue this "ripple effect" by getting our elected
officials on the record, just as I did two weeks ago. Anybody can do
it, and it makes a big difference.
Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mtracey