We have been discussing the disconnect between the parties and the voters this year. The voters have made clear that they (1) detest the ruling elite and (2) want real change. The two parties controlling our duopoly have thus far responded with the Democrats virtually pre-nominating Hillary Clinton (with Joe Biden as a contender and the Republican leaders pushing for Jeb Bush. The process of reinvention has begun. Clinton has been a fascinating case study. Recently, she came out and said that her Iraq War vote was a “mistake” but that she has learned the truth over the years (despite refusing to listen to many who opposed the war at the time). Now, she is claiming the same gradual realization that gays and lesbians deserve equal rights in marriage. Usually in Washington media, politicians are allowed to make a spin, refuse to answer a question, that the media simply meekly fades away. As shown in the video below, however, this time Clinton was facing NPR icon Terry Gross who persisted in trying to unravel what she viewed as spin. While unfailingly polite, Gross kept returning to question of why Clinton for so many years did not support same-sex marriage. Eventually, Hillary expressed discomfort if not anger at the continued questioning. Putting aside the merits, most of us were shocked for another reason. There was a reporter who actually refused to let a politician duck and spin in an interview. It was like seeing a Phoenix rise in Washington journalism.
In January 2000 Clinton strongly opposed same-sex marriage but years later would modify her position to support civil unions. However, she remained steadfastly opposed to equality in marriage, as she made clear in her 2007 convention speech. This was strikingly (and some would say calculatingly) different from Obama who in 1996 said “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” (though he then abandoned that commitment as president until his second term).
In Washington, the media has never been so locked into respective political camps with reporters now consistently supporting either liberal or conservative lines. I have tremendous respect for NPR and consider it one of our premier media outfits. It is not a lock for politicians though it is viewed as a favorable forum by the Clinton camp, particularly an iconic liberal and feminist like Gross. Even with more neutral interviewers, politicians have become accustomed to simply refusing to answer questions with spin and the most you will get is a feeble followup before “moving on.” Thus, Clinton has been successful in fending out questions of her description of Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Some reporters have raised whether a male politician would be skewered for such a comment, particularly when Bill Clinton admitted later than he lied on not having a relationship with “that woman.” However, Hillary simply said that it was past history and that we all needed to move on and the media complied. (For my part, I view the Lewinsky comment are a fair area for a pass. The fact is that Clinton was not just a politicians but the man’s wife. I think you get a pass in such a circumstance.). The mantra of only “looking forward” becomes more problematic when you are speaking of votes to commit the country to war or opposition to equality of marriage.
The confrontation was triggered when Gross asked, as an almost intellectual exercise, how politicians like Clinton make the political calculation not to support things like equal rights. Clinton (as with the Iraq War) portrayed her position as something that was almost pre-historic ancient history and had to go into the way back machine to describe what is was like. She suggested that virtually no one support it (her same spin on the Iraq War and everyone else was wrong too). That did not sit well with Gross who kept pointing out that at the time many American supported same-sex marriage and tried hard to get people like Clinton to listen but politicians like her were unwilling to risk the political backlash. Clinton dismisses those voices as a few early risers but portray this as a different time — apparently closer to the landing of Plymouth than the Stonewell riots. In the end, Hillary accuses Gross of “being very persistent” and “playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.”
Here are the eleven attempts to get Hillary to admit that she simply followed the politically expedient course over principle on the issue:
NPR’s TERRY GROSS: “So what’s it like when you’re in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage, that you actually believe in? Obviously you feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights, but in doing the calculus you decided you couldn’t support it. Correct me if I’m reading it wrong.”
HILLARY CLINTON: “I think you’re reading it very wrong. I think that, as I said – just as the president has said – just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean you’re not a thinking human being. You gather information, you think through positions, you’re not 100 percent set, thank goodness, you’re constantly re-evaluating where you stand. That is true for me. We talked earlier about Iraq, for goodness sakes. So for me, marriage has always been a matter left to the states and in many of the conversations I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists to work state-by-state. In fact, that is what is working and I think that being in the position that I was in the Senate, fighting employment discrimination which we still have some ways to go, was appropriate at that time.
As secretary of state, I was out of domestic politics and I was certainly doing all I could on the international scene to raise the importance of the human rights of the LGBT community. And then leaving that position, I was able to very quickly announce that I was fully in support of gay marriage and that it is now continuing to proceed state-by-state. I am very hopeful that we will make progress and see even more change and acceptance. One of my big problems right now is that too many people believe they have a direct line to the divine and they never want to change their mind about anything.They’re never open about new information and they like to operate in an evidence-free zone. I think it’s good if people continue to change.”
. . .
GROSS: “So you mention that you believe in state by state for gay marriage. But it’s a Supreme Court too. The Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. That part is now struck down. And DOMA was actually signed by your husband when he was president. In spite of the fact that he signed it, were you glad at this point that the Supreme Court struck some of it down?”
CLINTON: “Of course. And you know, again, let’s… we are living at a time when this extraordinary change is occurring and I’m proud of our country, I’m proud of the people who have been on the front lines of advocacy, but in 1993, that was not the case. And there was a very concerted effort in the Congress to make it even more difficult and greater discrimination and what DOMA did is at least allow the states to act. It wasn’t going to yet be recognized by the federal government but at the state level there was the opportunity. And my husband was the first to say, that you know, the political circumstances, the threats that were trying to be alleviated by the passage of DOMA, thankfully, were no longer so preeminent and we could keep moving forward and that’s what we’re doing.”
. . .
GROSS: “So, just to clarify, just one more question on this, would you say your view evolved since the ’90s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view?”
. . .
CLINTON: “I think I’m an American, I think that we have all evolved, and it’s been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I’m aware of.”
. . .
GROSS: “I understand but a lot of people believed in it already back in the ’90s. They supported gay marriage.”
CLINTON: “To be fair Terry, not that many. Were there activists who were ahead of their time, well that was true in every human rights and civil rights movement, but the vast majority of Americans were just waking up to this issue and beginning to think about it, and grasp it for the first time, and think about their neighbor down the street who deserved to have the same rights as they did, or their son, or their daughter. It has been an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms social, political, and legal transformation and we ought to celebrate that instead of plowing old ground when in fact a lot of people, the vast majority of people, have been moving forward. Maybe slowly, maybe tentatively, maybe not as quickly and extensively as many would have hoped but nevertheless, we are at a point now where equality, including marriage equality, in our country is solidly established although there will be places, Texas just to name one, where that is still going to be an ongoing struggle.”
. . .
GROSS: “I’m pretty sure you didn’t answer my question about whether you evolved or it was the American public that changed –”
CLINTON: “Because I said I’m an American so of course we all evolved and I think that’s a fair conclusion –”
. . .
GROSS: “So you’re saying your opinion on gay marriage changed.”
CLINTON: “You know, somebody is always first, Terry. Somebody is always out front and thank goodness they are. But that doesn’t mean that those who join later, in being publicly supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change, are any less committed. You could not be having the sweep of marriage equality across the country if nobody changed their mind and thank goodness so many of us have.”
. . .
GROSS: “So that’s one for you changed your mind?”
CLINTON: You know I really, I have to say, I think you’re being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.”
. . .
GROSS: “I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand –”
CLINTON: “No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like I think you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue and I am proud of what I’ve done and the progress were making.”
. . .
GROSS: “You know I’m just saying, I’m sorry – I just want to clarify what I was saying – no, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, but, you know believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn’t ready yet and you couldn’t say it. That’s what I was thinking.”
CLINTON: “No. That is not true.”
CLINTON: “I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you did either. This was an incredible new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay right movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others about the rightness of that position. When I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”
GROSS: “OK, thank you for clarifying that.”
When pushed Clinton seems to trip over the spin. For example, she at the end disagrees when Gross that “you now believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn’t ready yet.” Clinton clearly indicates that she did not believe in same-sex marriage. However, Gross made that comment because she just referred to how some people (presumably her) were “privately accepting that there needs to be change” and should not be viewed as “any less committed.” As with Iraq, Clinton seems to be striving to get points for eventually supporting something when it became popular to do so. While Gross noted that “a lot of people believed in it already back in the ’90s. They supported gay marriage,” Clinton dismissed the notion and said “To be fair Terry, not that many.” That will come as a surprise to many in this country. What is true is that there were “not that many” politicians in Congress who were willing to stand for equal rights in marriage. Clinton was not and, with the Iraq War, waited for the polls to change.
It was a rare moment in journalism today. Gross is already being criticized by some media members who support Clinton. They are appalled by her persistence on the question and Jonathan Capehart insisted he has covered her for years and never saw the slightest “political calculation in her opposition to same-sex marriage.” Carhart simply states that her positions has been “pretty much where the country was then.” However, that is not viewed as a political calculation. He just insists that “her march to ‘yes’ was maddeningly slow” but that there was “not a whiff” of politics in her position.
Because of Gross’s “persistence,” we have the most detailed answer from Clinton yet on the issue. Clinton does admit that she did not support equality in marriage personally, but insisted that she showed great integrity in changing her mind. However, what leaves people like Gross and other civil libertarians suspicious is that these epiphanies for Clinton always seem to occur when the polls change. When the polls shifted in favor of civil unions, Clinton realized that she supported civil unions but was still steadfastly opposed to equal marriage rights. Then the polls shifted in favor of equal marriage and Clinton realized that she now supported the concept. It is not the change but the timing that leaves so many suspicious.
With the recent pivot on the Iraq War using the same spin (this was ancient history and she had to be educated over the years), it will be interesting if the New Hillary will be the type of change that citizens will accept. It will be the ultimate test for the standard view of politicians that voters have the memory of golden retriever puppies. For my part (despite the attacks on Gross from the Clinton camp), I would love to see other journalists show the same “persistence,” which used to be viewed as a positive thing in a reporter. We just might be able to get some answers from all of our leaders instead of the same spin written by political handlers. Very few reporters in Washington are willing to alienate a powerful politician or her supporters with such persistent questioning but it is a refreshing change seen on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.