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.

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.