Hillary Clinton had a bad week until it turned awful. She got tripped up once again, this time in a radio interview on NPR (!); her caution, testiness and lack of tact came through as she was thrown on defense about her previous opposition to gay marriage. Listen to the whole thing, but the worst comes a few minutes in:
TERRY 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 was the America public the change.
CLINTON: Because I said I’m an American, so of course we all evolved and I think that’s a fair conclusion.
ROSS: 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 [are] 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 we’re 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 rights 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.
She has to plead caution, not being ahead of the time (being too conservative, in other words) to escape the charge she was being politically calculating. Somewhere there is a real liberal out there thinking this is a disaster waiting to happen and an outrage that this is the best the left can do.
Even more revealing was her testiness. You are putting words in my mouth. (Translation: How dare you ask me hard questions.) No, you’re not clarifying. (Is NPR part of the vast right-wing conspiracy now?)
Apparently no one told the media this was a coronation and no one had the nerve to prepare Clinton with tough questions. She’s a hard worker, so I suppose she can practice being more forthcoming, but that is a little like planning to be more spontaneous. She is who she is — a very cautious, calculating person who didn’t start out to be the candidate, but instead the power behind the candidate. She doesn’t have the easygoing personality and common touch her husband does and she gets worse under pressure.
The most defining characteristic of Clinton’s political career is that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then disaffection. Bloomberg reports: “Fifty-two percent of Americans view the former secretary of state favorably, down from 56 percent in March and 70 percent in December 2012, according to the Bloomberg National Poll. The decline means Clinton wouldn’t enter a possible 2016 race as a prohibitive favorite over key Republican rivals. While she still bests them in head-to-head matchups, she doesn’t have majority support against any of them.”
Moreover, Clinton has opened up whole new lines of questions: How did she miss a great civil rights cause like gay rights, and why did she hang back for so long? When was she ahead of the curve on a controversial issue? How rich is she, and was it the best use of her time to make more millions rather than doing philanthropic work over the past 18 months? Does she feel poor? When was the last time she went grocery shopping? (Then there are all those pesky questions about Iraq, which is descending into chaos: Was her failure to negotiate a status of force agreement a critical factor in Iraq’s road to disintegration? What did she and the president do wrong? Was the notion that al-Qaeda was on its heels a gross misjudgment? What would she do now?)
Republicans better pray she improves enough to keep her in the race and keep others out. Otherwise, they may find themselves up against a more formidable opponent.