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The Clintons: an American journey

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Since at least 1992, the Clintons have been a very public family. They have evolved and grown on the national stage. Their changes, we are coming to realize, reflect our changes as a society, which may help explain why we have come to appreciate Bill, Hillary and Chelsea more over the years. Take their views on gay marriage, for example.

In 1988, supporting gay rights hurt a candidate. Joel Lieske of Cleveland State University’s political science department studied the cultural issues in that race. George H.W. Bush’s election victory “seems to have been shaped more by voter attitudes toward negative reference groups (that) include welfare recipients, illegal aliens, gays and lesbians,” Lieske wrote.

Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis turned down an offer by well-to-do gay activists to raise a million dollars for his campaign.

Four years later, though, gay issues, while still controversial, became a positive for a candidate when Clinton held a well-publicized fundraiser at the Hollywood Palace sponsored solely by a gay-rights group.

Bill Clinton took office pledging to end the military’s ban on gay recruits. Clinton’s legal advisers said he could do so by executive order.

But the military did not want gays, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell led a group of generals and admirals to Clinton’s office to express their strong displeasure.

Powell told reporters, “We had an excellent meeting with the president and a good exchange of views. I’ve said all I want.” Earlier, the Joint Chiefs had spent over an hour with Clinton’s secretary of defense — the better part of it objecting to a change in policy, while leaving military hot spots such as Bosnia for the end.

Clinton held firm on his campaign pledge, and ultimately Congress and the military compromised with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But, the issue had cost Clinton politically. He avoided gay rights in his 1996 campaign, and in September 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as “the legal union of one man and one woman.”

Hillary also backed away from gay rights issues. In 1999, she said she didn’t think “don’t ask, don’t tell” had worked. In 2000, she said she didn’t support gay marriage: “Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” Later, she said the Defense of Marriage Act was a defensive measure designed to stave off a Constitutional amendment limiting marriages to heterosexual couples.

Gay issues were largely avoided in the 2000 presidential race. In the 2004 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made a positive reference during a presidential debate to Vice President Dick Cheney’s gay daughter, Mary. That sparked a flood of synthetic outrage by the Republican ticket. And Vice President Cheney’s wife, Lynne, angrily declared that Kerry is “not a good man.”

Things changed, slightly, during the 2008 democratic presidential primaries.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama supported gay marriage, though both supported civil unions. However, both openly embraced gay-sponsored campaign fundraisers.

In 2009, lawyers David Boies and Theodore Olson, who had represented Al Gore and George Bush, respectively, in the 2000 election dispute, joined together to work for the repeal of Proposition 8 in California, a law banning same-gender marriage.

“Creating a second class of citizens is discrimination, pure and simple,” said Olson, solicitor general under President George W. Bush.

By 2010, former Secretary of State Colin Powell changed his position, supporting the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” Powell said, adding that he now “fully supported” allowing gays to openly join the military.

In 2011, Chelsea Clinton joined a phone bank to back gay marriage in New York. Saying she had married her “best friend,” the previous year, she “fundamentally” believed everyone should have the same right.

Her father, citing the Statue of Liberty as a beacon for all people, said, “In the 21st century, I believe New York’s welcome must include marriage equality.”

That same year Hillary, speaking at the United Nations, said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

And earlier this month, former President Clinton wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times urging repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act: “As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is ... incompatible with our Constitution.”

Hillary, too, anticipating the Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, spoke in favor of gay marriage: “I believe America is at its best when we champion the freedom and dignity of every human being. That’s who we are. It’s in our DNA.”

A recent poll shows that 81 percent of Americans under 30, and 58 percent of the general public, support gay marriage. There remains opposition to gay marriage, of course. But most Americans have traveled the journey with the Clinton family, which, after years of thought and struggle, now sees gay marriage as just a marriage — an affirmation of couples committing to one another for life.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)

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