How Badly Will DOMA Blemish Bill Clinton's Legacy?

But in 50 years, what will be remembered? Clinton's late-career conversion, or DOMA? As more and more gay-rights victories like the Supreme Court's DOMA decision pile up, the major milestones of discrimination will loom larger still, icons of the bad old days. Those who lived through the 1990s may well remember the complicating factors, the mitigating circumstances, that went into Clinton's compromise on DADT and cave on DOMA. They will protest that gay marriage wasn't even something anyone beyond a choice few (notably Sullivan) talked about seriously in 1996. They will point to his support for AIDS research and employment nondiscrimination laws. They will insist that a stronger gay-rights stand would have been untenable. 

That may be true; it's also a defense that some politicians who did nothing to stop segregation used to absolve themselves. Regardless, those shades of gray will be increasingly faint as history recedes and the past looks more black and white. The clearly defined policies will be remembered in a way the qualifiers won't be.

What's more, the incredibly fast changes in the United States on gay rights since then will make the different landscape of the mid-1990s alien and hard to imagine. Less than 20 years on, 13 states have legal gay marriage, encompassing 30 percent of the nation's population. Meanwhile, Clinton suffers in comparison to his Democratic predecessor Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was known to casually drop the n-word in private conversation, but when the chips were down, he signed the Civil Rights Act and then the Voting Rights Act (saying, perhaps apocryphally, "There goes the South," of his party's chances below the Mason-Dixon Line for the foreseeable future). It is his policy, not his words, that made his legacy as America's greatest civil-rights president.

Clinton seems to have been aware of the danger he faced in signing DOMA (though maybe that just makes it worse). He signed the bill late at night, after returning from a trip, avoiding a public ceremony and the indelible images of himself signing the bill that it would have produced. Wallace, on the other hand, made sure there were plenty of cameras and reporters watching in 1963 when he took the far more reprehensible step of standing in a University of Alabama doorway to prevent two black students from entering. (Wallace eventually yielded in the face of Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, federal marshals, and the National Guard.)

Much of Clinton's fate may depend on what his wife Hillary Clinton decides to do. If she runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, wins it, and is elected, she would likely oversee the almost-total normalization of gay rights across the United States. It would be a period to match or even surpass the Obama Administration in terms of historical change. Bill Clinton would be able to bask in that glow, and he would look the better for it.

If, however, she does not, or loses, it means that DOMA will loom larger than anything else in Clinton's gay-rights legacy. That could relegate his late-life epiphany to the same status as Wallace's own repentance: a fascinating, important turn, but not more than a footnote.

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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