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 8.
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 reconsidered."
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, but commonplace.
"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.