In “Dear President Clinton,” New York Times’ op-ed writer Frank Bruni aptly asks today, “Where’s your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?” DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and affords the states the option to not recognize legal civil same-sex marriages from other states or countries.
“What a year you’ve had, the kind that really burnishes a legend,” Bruni, who is openly-gay, writes today at the Times. “At the Democratic National Convention, on the campaign trail, in speeches aplenty and during interviews galore, you spoke eloquently about what this country should value, and you spoke unequivocally about where it should head. Such a bounty of convictions, such a harvest of words, except for one that’s long overdue: Sorry.”
“Where’s your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?,” Bruni posits.
Acknowledging that in “2009 you at last said that DOMA should be wiped off the books and you endorsed same-sex marriage, getting out ahead of many Democrats who still had elections to worry about and weren’t yet seeing, in polls, as much public support for same-sex marriage as they wanted to see,” Bruni continues:
In 1996, with an overblown worry about your re-election and a desire not to seem too liberal, you put your name to that execrable decree. And you’ve never wholly owned up to that, never made adequate amends. It’s past time, and it’s almost time for Hillary, who is about to step down as secretary of state, to catch up with other cabinet members and President Obama and make her presumed support for same-sex marriage explicit, which she has never done.
Her role as the nation’s senior diplomat discourages her from wading into domestic political matters: that’s the tradition and etiquette. But the gag order will soon be lifted, and I could make the case that it’s irrelevant anyway; that marriage equality is a matter of human rights, not politics; and that she’s powerful and beloved enough to have said whatever she wanted, at least once Obama finally laid down his marker.
In any case she, like you, has been largely on the sidelines during this vital chapter in our country’s march toward greater social justice. What a shame, given that no two people have been larger in the Democratic Party over the last quarter-century and given the party’s deserved pride in its embrace of same-sex marriage now. The two of you should be a more integral part of that pride. You should be at the very epicenter of this. It’s strange and it’s sad that you’re not.
DOMA is a nasty bit of business, in practical as well as symbolic terms. It denies federal pension, health care and medical leave benefits — among many other protections and considerations — to same-sex couples who have been legally married in the growing number of states that permit it. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, those couples are singles and when one dies, the survivor has to pay estate taxes, for example, that heterosexual widows and widowers don’t.
This disparate treatment has rightly come under legal challenge, and many federal courts have now ruled that it violates the Constitution’s equal-protection clause. The Supreme Court late last week weighed which, if any, of these cases to take. An announcement is expected soon. With any luck, the nation’s highest court will dismantle DOMA, a decision that wouldn’t create marriage equality coast to coast but would change the tenor of debate in states considering the legalization of same-sex marriage.
After you signed DOMA — which, it must be said, a large majority of Democrats in Congress also supported — your defensiveness often trumped any suggestion of regret. As recently as 2008 you claimed that it’s a rewrite of history “to imply that somehow this was anti-gay.” You dodged the subject in your 2004 memoir, “My Life,” whose 957 pages didn’t include any mention of DOMA, as Frank Rich noted in New York magazine last February.
Bruni is right to challenge former President Clinton — before Hillary Clinton leaves her State Department post — on his ugly and evil contributions from the past. The former president, were the world perfect, not only apologize, but twist some arms behind closed doors to force GOP leaders to agree to repeal.
Hillary today is more popular than she has ever been. If she wants to win the White House in 2016 the Clinton family, together — Hillary has never said she supports marriage equality — will need to right this wrong.
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