Bill Clinton wasn’t always an icon

     President Bill Clinton's press secretary in 1996, Mike McCurry (right), recalled earlier this year that Clinton's DOMA posture

    President Bill Clinton's press secretary in 1996, Mike McCurry (right), recalled earlier this year that Clinton's DOMA posture "was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year." (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)

    Did you notice last week that Bill Clinton’s legacy took a bit of a beating?

    He’s arguably our most popular political figure. Gallup says that roughly 70 percent of Americans dig the guy. His public image is somewhere between rock star and sage. Every characteristically verbose utterance is duly dissected for clues about What Democrats Should Do or Whether Hillary Will Run.

    Nevertheless, he’s greatly aided by the national disease of amnesia.

    DOMA’s roots

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    Lest we forget, he’s the president who in 1996 signed the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act — the same act that was just junked by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Bill is the one who signed the bill that barred legally-married gay people from getting federal benefits; in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, this law had “the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

    Worse yet, Bill dealt with the issue in a particularly sleazy fashion.

    He didn’t want to unduly rile his Democratic base (especially his gay donors), so he signed the bill late at night (12:50 a.m., to be precise), forgoing a public ceremony.  But then he turned around and ran radio ads on Christian stations in 15 Southern states, touting himself as DOMA’s champion.

    Just a reminder: Long before Bill became an icon, he was quite Machiavellian. In 1996 he was campaigning for re-election, and he wanted to have it both ways.

    Political forecasting

    As Mike McCurry, his ’96 press secretary, recalled earlier this year, “His posture was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year.” True that. In Congress, homophobia was a bipartisan sentiment, and Clinton swung with it. He played it safe politically, but he failed to lead morally.

    Granted, he has since sought to make amends, albeit from the safe remove of retirement.

    In 2009, he told CNN: “I grew up in a different time. And I was hung up about the word [marriage].” And earlier this year, as DOMA moved toward its high court demise, he cried mea culpa in a guest newspaper column, contending that even though 1996 was “a very different time,” he had “come to believe” that DOMA was “incompatible with our Constitution. … I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory.”

    The question, of course, is whether he has “come to believe” these things via an honest cognitive process — Chad Griffin, who heads the Human Rights Campaign, a top gay rights group, insisted recently that “President Clinton has evolved on this issue just like every American has evolved” — or whether Bill has calculatedly evolved to make things easier for Hillary, should she choose to run in 2016.

    The answer: It’s probably both. A political animal like Bill instinctively melds cognition and calculation.

    “His good works obscured”

    But DOMA wasn’t the only Clinton-era news item to resurface last week.  You may also have noticed that Marc Rich died.

    That name ring a bell? Rich was a financial swindler and tax deadbeat who fled the feds and took up residence in Switzerland, a guy so notorious (for his illegal dealings with Iran, among other things) that the FBI put him on the “Most Wanted” list alongside Osama bin Laden. The IRS offered half a million bucks as a reward for his capture.

    Clinton, in the last hours of his presidency, gave Marc Rich a full pardon. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that the felon’s former wife, Denise Rich, had bestowed generous financial largesse on the Democratic Party and the nascent William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

    I bet that few Americans today, most notably Bill’s new fans, remember (or even know about) the furor that ensued back in February 2001. I do remember, because I wrote about it at the time:

    “Many Democrats who excused Clinton or kept silent [during the Monica Lewinsky scandal] as he deceived top aides and allowed them to repeat those lies in public are not about to cut him more slack. Many seem almost anxious to distance themselves from his last presidential act, crafted without consulting federal prosecutors, to pardon a fugitive described by his own biographer as ‘the most wanted white-collar criminal in America.'”

    I remember talking to a Democratic strategist who lamented, “It’s hard to defend what appears to be indefensible. The pardon was a bad call, and this is a bad story for us. … We would have liked to have seen him leave the presidency basking in the warmth of his successes. So I’m sad to see his good works obscured by this.”

    So said one of my best Democratic sources at the time, David Axelrod.

    Fortunately for Bill, tawdry old episodes can always be trumped by new good works. DOMA is dead, and Marc Rich’s obit is already history. Basking in retirement, he benefits from our short memories. But we’d be wise to recognize that politicians often tend to look far better in the rear-view mirror.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1.

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