How Badly Will DOMA Blemish Bill Clinton's Legacy?

Comparing the 42nd president's record on civil rights to two Democrats of yore: Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace
Former President Bill Clinton at the 2013 GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles. (Todd Williamson/Invision/Associated Press)

"George Wallace" is a useful shorthand today for a certain era and mindset -- a two-word metonym second only to Jim Crow for evoking the segregationist south of the post-World War II era.

Less well remembered, especially by a younger generation who didn't live through it, is Wallace's late-career transformation. After becoming a born-again Christian, Wallace apologized to civil-rights leaders and voiced serious regrets about his policies as Alabama governor in the 1960s: "I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over." In 1982, he ran for and won yet another term as governor, during which he showed his repentance wasn't just talk: Wallace championed equal voting rights and had two black cabinet members, a record that has been equalled but not passed. If there are no second acts in American lives, there are at least codas, and Wallace had one of the more remarkable ones.

I thought about Wallace today when reading Andrew Sullivan's sharp slap at another ambitious former southern governor for his statement on the Supreme Court's DOMA ruling, which Sullivan said belongs to "the annals of chutzpah":

"By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the Court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union. We are also encouraged that marriage equality may soon return to California. We applaud the hard work of the advocates who have fought so relentlessly for this day, and congratulate Edie Windsor on her historic victory," -- former president Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA, insisted it was constitutional at the time, double-crossed the gay activists who originally funded him, ran ads in the South bragging of passing DOMA, doubled the rate of gay discharges from the military and signed the HIV travel ban into law.

A comparison between Clinton and Wallace is, at first blush, ridiculous. After all, even Clinton's staunchest critics simply accuse him of selling out principle for politics and opting not to do the right thing. Wallace, on the other hand, was the proactive figurehead for a certain kind of hateful racism, going out of his way to racebait. But bear with the parallel a bit. Just as Wallace's 1960s heyday came during the slow and steady march toward civil rights, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 during what we can now see clearly as the early stages of a slow and steady march toward gay rights. It's those broad currents that may be best remembered by historians.

Clinton has been publicly penitent about his handling of gay rights in the White House. Things started off well, with one of the most radical LGBT equality proposals in history: an attempt to abolish all restrictions on gays in the military. But under pressure from the military and the public, he went with the halfway measure of "don't ask, don't tell" in late 1993. At the time, it was progressive, though by 2011, when the policy was ended, many viewed it as impossibly retrograde and clearly discriminatory. 

Then things got worse. Just three years later, in 1996, Clinton signed DOMA. Even at the time, confidants say Clinton opposed the principle of the bill but signed it out of pragmatic considerations -- a tribute to his famously shrewd politics, but not to his character. During his reelection campaign that year, he ran ads on religious radio touting his signing of the bill. Two years later, 1998, was what my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta has identified as the high-water mark of anti-gay politics.

In March of this year, the former president wrote a column in the Washington Post calling for overturning DOMA, but while his policy suggestion was clear, he didn't dwell on his own role. Clinton resorted to the old "it was a very different time" line and simply suggested he'd come around; there was no emotional expression of regret, all the more notable from a president known for emoting so well. Still, Clinton's PR blitz hasn't been fruitless. GLAAD, one of the nation's largest gay-rights groups, named him an "Advocate for Change" in April. And as one of the nation's most popular public figures, his advocacy does matter for LGBT rights.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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