The U.S. Supreme Court’s voiding of a section of the Defense Of Marriage Act last week was great – the kind of thing that feels momentous in the broadest historical sense. It even had a T.O. connection, since Edith Windsor, who sued the government, actually married her lesbian lover here. It was the kind of warm-fuzzy day that almost seemed too good for anyone to ruin. Almost.
Of all people, it was the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton, who managed to dampen the mood. And of all things, he did it by tweeting support for the DOMA decision: “Today’s decisions are a great step forward for #MarriageEquality. Grateful to all who fought tirelessly for this day.”
It’d be a totally fine, if pretty rote, sentiment, were it not for one niggling fact: Clinton signed DOMA into law in the first place!
In 1996, just as the gay rights movement was gaining serious momentum, Clinton rubber-stamped a piece of legislation that would seriously impede queer America’s strides toward full-on equality under the law. Considering his earlier support for the gay community – including the introduction of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy – his signing of DOMA was generally seen as a bit of cynical politicking in an election year: pre-empting the issue before it could become a hot-button campaign topic.
The one-time prez has since reneged, even penning a column for the Washington Post a few months ago calling for DOMA’s repeal. Okay. But we shouldn’t let him live down his legislative legacy with a few well-meaning editorials and tweets.
It’s easy being a former president. All you have to do is swap out a necktie for a casual turtleneck and spend your autumn years publicly supporting causes and working the celebrity golf tournament circuit. (Just look at Jimmy Carter, whose storied ex-presidency far outweighs his middling stint in the Oval Office.) Getting back on the right side of history after the tides have turned is simple, and opportunistic, stuff.
Being a sitting, working, bill-signing president is a lot trickier. You have to work harder at it. As Clinton should have worked harder – or at least made some effort – to thwart DOMA right from the start.