In Bill Clinton White House, Hillary Clinton’s staff helped push on gay rights – Politico
LITTLE ROCK —Newly-disclosed documents show President Bill Clinton’s White House engulfed in a political firestorm over gay marriage in the mid-1990s, but they offer no indication that Hillary Clinton pushed her husband to abandon his opposition to such unions or to veto the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed two months before his re-election in 1996.
The records released by the National Archives at the Clinton Library here Thursday demonstrate that Hillary Clinton’s staff took a progressive stand on other gay-rights issues and helped push to torpedo anti-gay-rights legislation.
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The saga of the Clinton White House’s handling of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court two years ago, remains a bitter one for some gay activists. But the more than 5,000 White House documents made public for the first time Thursday offer what could be a political silver lining for Hillary Clinton as she prepares to announce her second presidential bid.
The files show several of her staffers lobbied actively on behalf of the gay community during her husband Bill’s White House tenure, while presidential aides debated how to position him on key issues given his personal opposition to same-sex unions.
In an August 2000 memo, domestic policy aide Ann O’Leary — a liaison between Hillary Clinton’s office and President Bill Clinton’s policy staff — pushed for government-wide vetting of an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Writing to Clinton Domestic Policy Adviser Bruce Reed, O’Leary said such a directive could be modeled on a 1941 order by President Franklin Roosevelt that banned racial discrimination by contractors.
An order forbidding contractors from discriminating against gays and lesbians was eventually issued by the White House, but not until last year — some two presidencies later. “Many of you have worked for a long time to see this day coming,” President Barack Obama said when he signed the order.
Other memos made public this week at the Clinton Library show aides to Hillary Clinton worked to defeat an effort spearheaded by Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) to prevent unmarried couples from adopting children in Washington, D.C. The measure passed the House in 1998, but was later dropped from an appropriations bill. In 1999, it was narrowly defeated in a floor vote.
The files underscore how dramatically the politics of same-sex marriage have changed over two decades. Most national-level Democratic politicians now fully embrace gay marriage rights, and the Supreme Court is set to hear a case later this month that could guarantee recognition of same-sex marriages nationwide.
But back in 1996, Bill Clinton’s aides wrestled at length over the issue before he signed DOMA, the law banning gay couples from receiving federal benefits and declaring that states did not have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The records show the legislation caused political heartburn for the Clinton White House, which was caught between the president’s stated opposition to same-sex marriage and a desire to keep his gay and lesbian supporters enthusiastic about his unfolding re-election campaign.
While there appears to have been little discussion of Clinton vetoing the DOMA bill in 1996, some White House aides urged a softer line against gay marriage and a full embrace of civil unions.
However, in April of that year, Clinton personally approved talking points framing same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional marriage.
“The institutions of traditional marriage and family face tremendous pressures in today’s society,” says a memo from White House Counsel Jack Quinn bearing Clinton’s trademark left-handed check mark on the “AGREE” line. “We must do everything we can to support and strengthen these institutions.”
The talking points — sent to the Oval Office for clearance in response to a request from a gay magazine, The Advocate — note that Clinton “has previously said that he does not personally support same-sex marriages.”
The memo strikes a neutral tone towards discussions about civil unions, supporting the idea of non-discrimination while again suggesting such efforts could undermine male-female marriages or offend religious beliefs.
“The challenge in addressing these issues is to remain sensitive to the traditional values of our communities while preserving the fundamental right to live free from unjustified discrimination,” the position paper said.
One memo released Thursday shows that two White House aides who served as liaisons to the gay and lesbian community, Director of Presidential Personnel Marsha Scott and domestic policy aide Richard Socarides, urged Clinton to publicly oppose the GOP bill.
“We have been extremely successful in rebuilding our relationships to our friends in the gay and lesbian communities despite the fiasco of gays in the military, the disjointed handling of the Colorado case [at the Supreme Court over an anti-gay-rights measure], and the President’s stated personal opposition to gay marriage,” Scott and Socarides wrote in a May 1996 memo addressed to Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. “Our support for this bill would be taken by many in the gay communities as an expression by the President of deep ceded [sic] bias against gay people.”
They urged that Clinton reaffirm his “strong personal opposition to same-sex marriage…but oppose this bill as an intrusion on what for over 200 years has been the prerogative of state legislatures.”
It’s unclear if such proposals ever reached Clinton. Other top aides, including Scott, eventually argued to Clinton that he could not oppose DOMA without appearing to renege on his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Given your stated and longstanding opposition to gay marriage, we believe there would not be a substantive basis for you not to sign the proposed legislation if it were to be adopted by Congress,” White House Counsel Jack Quinn, Communications Adviser George Stephanopoulous and Scott sent to Clinton in May 1996.
The records indicate Clinton saw that memo, but they do not show explicit action. However, another set of talking points approved by Clinton that month take a fairly hard line against any federal recognition for same-sex marriage.
“The President has long opposed gay marriage based on his belief that the institution of marriage should be reserved for unions between one man and one woman,” says a statement bearing Clinton’s check mark and a “THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN” stamp. The points go on to say that Clinton strongly opposes “unfair discrimination….but he does not believe that the federal government should promote gay marriages [and] does not believe it is appropriate for federal resources to be devoted to providing spousal benefits to partners in gay and lesbian relationships.”
When the White House signaled that Clinton would sign the bill, many gay and lesbian advocates were furious, viewing the move as pre-election pandering. “This is being seen as a clear and calculated signal from the White House that we are abandoning the gay and lesbian constituencies,” Scott wrote in an email to White House political aide Eric Fanning.
The documents also show that senior presidential aides made a series of confusing and contradictory statements about gay marriage as the issue intensified in late 1995 and early 1996, with brewing legal fights and a Republican plan to press for passage of DOMA.
“The president doesn’t think that same-sex marriage should be outlawed,” Deputy Press Secretary Ginny Terzano said in December 1995. The quote featured in a Newsweek article grabbed the attention of Socarides, who circulated it among White House staffers.
Some in the White House also flagged comments by Scott, who told a gay audience in early 1996 that the administration was looking “for ways to ensure that those of you in loving, long-term and committed relationships can enjoy all the same benefits that [heterosexual couples] are entitled to under the law.”
“Came up at 7:30 meeting this morning,” Deputy White House Counsel Kathleen Wallman wrote, sending a Washington Times article about Scott’s comments to White House Counsel Jack Quinn and another lawyer in the office, Steve Neuwirth. “Not really our message.”
For her part, Scott sent a memo to Vice President Al Gore criticizing White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry for linking Clinton’s DOMA opposition to his view that “this is a time when we need to do things to strengthen the American family.”
“This…is not the President’s position,” she wrote.
As public support for gay marriage has evolved , Clinton has cast his signing of DOMA as a kind of defensive measure taken in the face of overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage in Congress and the likelihood of an override or even a constitutional amendment if he vetoed the legislation. However, among gay activists, the episode has long contributed to an ambivalence about Clinton, who took historic steps as president on behalf of the gay community but sometimes seemed to be triangulating on the issue.
Clinton critics note that despite his claim that he reluctantly signed DOMA, his re-election campaign advertised that fall on Christian radio stations in 15 states touting his approval.
More recently, both Clintons have grown more receptive to same-sex marriage and have gradually turned around on DOMA as well.
After saying in 2000 as a Senate candidate from New York that she would have voted for DOMA, Hillary Clinton said in 2007 she favored repealing part of the law that blocked federal benefits.
Bill Clinton also distanced himself from DOMA, before repudiating it altogether in 2013 and urging the Supreme Court to overturn the legislation, which said had become
a vehicle for discrimination. Three months after Clinton’s reversal, the high court ruled the law unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote.
The newly-public library records also show one young woman’s brief and successful drive to overturn a Clinton White House policy of not sending presidential greetings — or any acknowledgement at all — to invites from couples holding commitment ceremonies.
“I’ve learned that when an invitation comes in from a same-sex couple the volunteers put it in a question box which staff go through….No greeting is sent, nor is the couple responded to in any way,” White House Deputy Director for Presidential Inquiries Kelley Van Auken wrote in a September 1999 email to more senior staffers. “I think a greeting should be sent. I understand that it is not my beliefs that should determine what type of cards are sent, as they come from the President, but I think sending a card would fit in with this administration’s policies. He did sign the DOMA, and therefore we would not be able to send the wedding greeting.”
Van Auken went on to argue that sending some good wishes would not be a substantive policy change. “They are not asking for a card congratulating them on their ‘legal marriage ceremony.’ Perhaps I’m playing with semantics, but I don’t think some sort of recognition of this is too much to ask for,” she added, urging that such couples be sent what volunteers referred to as a Special Day card.
The issue was eventually escalated to an openly gay aide to Clinton, Staff Secretary Sean Maloney (now a Congressman from New York), who was “very much in favor” of the change. Within less than a month, couples began receiving cards that read: “Hillary and I are delighted to join your family and friends in sending congratulations as you celebrate this special occasion. Best wishes for much continued happiness. — Bill Clinton.”
Van Auken was just 22 at the time and later became an aide to Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.). Van Auken died last year at the age of 37, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.