As two gay-marriage cases reach the Supreme Court this week, the New York Times's Peter Baker served up Bill Clinton's mea culpa on the Defense of Marriage Act, which the president signed into law in 1996, in the heat of his re-election campaign.
While letting Clinton explain his reversal on DOMA, which ensured that no state is obligated to recognize a same-sex marriage conducted in another state, Baker relayed the former president's exceedingly lame explanations for angering the left and signing it into law -- apparently Bob Dole (his '96 election opponent) made him do it. And, sleep deprivation.
He had just flown across the country after an exhausting campaign day in Oregon and South Dakota, landing at the White House after dark. But President Bill Clinton still had more business before bed. He picked up a pen and scrawled out his name, turning a bill into law.
It was 10 minutes before 1 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, 1996, and there were no cameras, no ceremony. The witching-hour timing bespoke both political calculation and personal angst. With his signature, federal law now defined marriage as the union of a man and woman. Mr. Clinton considered it a gay-baiting measure, but was unwilling to risk re-election by vetoing it.
For nearly 17 years since, that middle-of-the-night moment has haunted Mr. Clinton, the source of tension with friends, advisers and gay rights supporters. He tried to explain, defend and justify. He asked for understanding. Then he inched away from it bit by bit. Finally this month, he disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act entirely, urging that the law be overturned by the Supreme Court, which takes up the matter on Wednesday on the second of two days of arguments devoted to same-sex marriage issues.
Rarely has a former president declared that an action he took in office violated the Constitution. But Mr. Clinton’s journey from signing the Defense of Marriage Act to repudiating it mirrors larger changes in society as same-sex marriage has gone from a fringe idea to one with a majority.
Baker eventually revealed that Clinton's midnight signing of the bill was accompanied later by boastful campaign ads on Christian radio, and got a boost from friendly media figure Anderson Cooper.
The schism widened when Mr. Clinton’s campaign broadcast ads on Christian radio in 15 states boasting that he had signed the Defense of Marriage Act. But most gay voters still voted for him, according to polls. His support for employment nondiscrimination legislation, AIDS financing and removing limits on security clearances for gay civilians outweighed what at the time seemed a more theoretical issue.
By 2009, times had changed and so had polls. After a speech, Mr. Clinton said he had changed his mind. He called [gay policy adviser Richard] Socarides that afternoon. “I think I’ve come out for same-sex marriage,” Mr. Clinton said.
When few noticed, Mr. Socarides found another way to call attention to it by suggesting to Anderson Cooper of CNN that he ask about it during a forthcoming interview. Then without mentioning his own role, Mr. Socarides e-mailed Mr. Clinton’s top aide and suggested that he make sure the former president was prepared to talk about same-sex marriage because Mr. Cooper might ask.
“I realized that I was, you know, over 60 years old,” Mr. Clinton told Mr. Cooper. “I grew up in a different time. And I was hung up about the word. And I had all these gay friends. I had all these gay couple friends. And I was hung up about it. And I decided I was wrong.”
Baker got around to criticism of Clinton's political opportunism in paragraph 22 of 24:
To supporters of the law, Mr. Clinton’s new position seemed as opportunistic as his original one did to the other side. His “shifting views on marriage are precisely why we have an independent judiciary,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. “The Constitution is not designed to shift with momentary political winds.”