Should We Forgive Bill Clinton?

President Bill Clinton with Elizabeth Birch, the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, when he addressed the LGBT rights group during his second term in office. | HRC

President Bill Clinton with Elizabeth Birch, the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, when he addressed the LGBT rights group during his second term in office. | HRC

So now, Bill Clinton told us this month in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, he’s against the Defense of Marriage Act he signed into law in 1996. We’re supposed to be grateful. But “the powerful odor of mendacity” (to borrow Tennessee Williams’ pungent phrase) has always hung over the ex-president, and this offensive smell permeates his anti-DOMA declaration.

When Clinton gave into the bigots and signed DOMA into law, he now writes, it was to forestall a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman. That’s just hogwash. In 1996, there was very little support for such a constitutional amendment in the Congress — that did not emerge until the issue of gay marriage was adopted by Karl Rove as the strategy to guarantee that George W. Bush would win the 2004 election.

DOMA is now “incompatible with the Constitution,” Clinton wrote. But DOMA was always un-constitutional — and Bill Clinton knew this when he signed it and made it the law of the land.

Did Bill apologize to gay Americans for having targeted them with DOMA’s bigotry? No.

What has changed? Public opinion has. In just five short years, there has been a tectonic shift in the country’s attitude toward marriage equality for queers. According to the Washington Post/ ABC poll, 58 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage — a 20-point shift in just a few short years —including majorities of Catholics and blacks and Latinos. Now that nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marriage equality, the sky hasn’t fallen and the dire predictions of its conservative opponents — that the family would be “destroyed” by allowing two men or two women to marry — have been shown to be the fantasies they always were.

With a 100-odd prominent Republicans having signed an amicus brief in the marriage equality case now in front of the Supreme Court, it has become clear that Bill Clinton was on the wrong side of history. No Democrat who opposes marriage equality can now win the presidential nomination.

And, surprise, surprise, a week after the ex-president’s op-ed, Hillary Clinton kicked off her campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination by releasing a video stating her support for marriage equality. And there you have the explanation for Bill Clinton’s reversal of position. It was all a part of clearing the decks for Hillary’s renewed candidacy for the White House.

Did Bill apologize to gay Americans for having targeted them with DOMA’s bigotry? No.

Moreover, Bill’s op ed was utterly silent about how his 1996 presidential campaign ran ads on Christian radio in the heartland and the Bible Belt boasting of how he’d signed DOMA. Bill’s re-election was never really in doubt, and he won in a landslide against the sinister Bob Dole. So the craven cynicism he displayed in signing DOMA into law was obvious at the time.

Bill signed DOMA as a pre-emptive strike against any attacks on his always-messy personal life — remember the “bimbo patrol” his ’92 campaign set up to silence or undermine revelations about his serial marriage infidelities? Remember Ms. Lewinsky and her kneepads and Bill’s cigar? (If you’ve forgotten that history, read my late friend Christopher Hitchens’ terrific 1999 book “No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family.”)

The truth is that an old and predatory libertine like Bill couldn’t have cared less if a guy or a gal wanted to marry a Volkswagen. He wasn’t a bigot himself — he just surfed on the bigotry of others like the opportunist he’s always been. And it is that opportunism that led him to write his op-ed piece against DOMA on behalf of his wife’s candidacy.

But there is a long list of vicious actions by President Clinton and his administration for which he owes LGBT people an unadulterated apology.

Let’s take his betrayal of his 1992 campaign pledge to end, “with the stroke of a pen,” the ban on gays serving in the military, which helped him raise millions of gay dollars for his campaign — especially from the Hollywood crowd he liked to hang out with.

Most presidents, when they take office, have a plan on how to fulfill their campaign promises. But Bill had no plan for allowing gays to serve in uniform. And so he got rolled by the military. With Colin Powell in the lead, the generals staged what was, in effect, a silent coup d’état that throttled our tradition of civilian control over the military with a revolt of the brass hats. And Bill then did what every cynical politician does when he wants to avoid a confrontation over principle — he appointed a commission. The one that gave us Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — which was, of course, like DOMA, the writing of bigotry into law. As I reported in a cover story for The Nation, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell unleashed a wave of persecution and violence against gays in the armed services that included murders. The blood of those victims of violence is on Bill’s hands.

Sure, Bill gave jobs to a few gay boys and girls — just enough to keep his gay campaign donors happy, but never in any positions that would have affected the daily lives of gay people.

In 1996, when ENDA — the pathetically inadequate Employment Non-Discrimination Act for gay people — came within one vote of passing the Senate, Bill and his White House didn’t lift a pinkie to help secure pro-ENDA votes. That swing vote was Senator Dale Bumpers, a Democrat from Clinton’s own home state of Arkansas, who took a walk.

And then, there was AIDS. Bill fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for having championed teaching the use of condoms in the schools and advocated masturbation as a safe alternative to risky sex at a time when teenage infection rates were soaring.

In the second Clinton administration, one of my gigs was writing a column on the politics of AIDS for POZ magazine. And back then I wrote a series of columns exposing how Bill and his administration used aid and trade blackmail targeting Third World countries to stop them from buying or manufacturing cheaper, generic versions of the AIDS-fighting drugs needed to prolong life. Al Gore was the point man in this odious extortion campaign, which is why he was dogged by ACT UP in his 2000 presidential campaign. How many thousands died because Clinton, in his subservience to the greed of Big Pharma, engaged in this shameful arm-breaking? We’ll never know for sure — but their blood, too, is on Bill’s hands.

Whenever I see Bill parading around these days as a champion of the fight against AIDS, I think of those who died from the epidemic because of him. He has always reminded me of a line of Goethe’s, in “The Sorrows of Young Werther”: “Each step he takes costs the lives of a thousand poor little worms.” And my late partner, Hervé Couergou, was one of the worms crushed under the heel of Bill Clinton’s cynical opportunism.

I fell in love with Hervé shortly after I moved to France for a decade. But not long after I moved back to the US to lay the groundwork for Hervé to join me here, Bill signed a renewal of President George H.W. Bush’s executive order banning admission into this country of anyone who was HIV-positive. This obscene act of Bill Clinton’s broke up many families, including mine. And because Hervé had sero-converted, he felt the full force of Clinton’s ukase — which, I’m convinced, didn’t win the president a single vote.

After Hervé became too ill to work, I had to stay here to earn a living for both of us — and so, thanks to Bill Clinton, I was denied the right to nurse Hervé during the illness that took his life. This broke my heart. There are a number of very reliable studies that showed us that those with AIDS who had partners to take care of and comfort them lived significantly longer than those who didn’t. Thus, Bill’s executive order — which he signed before the Congress formalized the ban in law — not only deprived me of the right to take care of my sick beloved, it shortened his life. And Hervé died, alone, in a Paris hospital before I could get there to hold his hand as that dread disease took his life. As far as I’m concerned, Hervé’s blood, too, is on Bill’s hands.

If I were to run into Bill Clinton again today, I would spit in his face, not only for Hervé but for all those queers and people with AIDS, in uniform and out, whose lives were destroyed by his opportunism. He showed us no mercy, and we owe him none. He’s never apologized for his multiple assaults against us. So his forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. And his belated anti-DOMA declaration, designed solely to burnish his image and avoid campaign problems for his wife, is just another cynical and self-serving act.