A lot of people are talking about Terry Gross’s interview of Hillary Clinton last week in which Gross sought to pin Clinton down on the question of whether she changed her mind about gay marriage or just came out in favor when it was safe to do so politically. I often criticize Gross here for her old-school Middle East opinions. But this interview shows her brilliance– patient, penetrating, precise, courageous. The portion I’m excerpting below, though, is about Clinton stating that activists are out front on human rights and get other people to change their minds. It’s a truism, of course, but a good one. I think the unspoken part of this exchange is the idea that Terry Gross actually supported gay marriage back in the 90s, as did many progressives. She doesn’t say so, but you can sense it in her firmness with Hillary’s prevarication; she is honoring the vanguard’s courage by seeking to establish just when Hillary got in, and why. Some straight folks I know refused to get married out of solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. (Not me; I was in the regressive camp here, I had to be educated/reformed.)
I offer this exchange because it is wise about how political movements operate. And let’s be clear: Palestinian rights are today in the vanguard. You can change your mind tomorrow or next week or in a decade, but you will change your mind, or become irrelevant.
GROSS: No, I understand, but a lot of people already believed in it back the ’90s. A lot of people already supported gay marriage.
CLINTON: But not – to be fair, Terry, not that many. Yes, 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, you know, think about it and grasp it for the first time. And, you know, 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, where 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 it was the American public that changed (Laughing).
CLINTON: I said I’m an American, so of we all evolved. And I think that that’s a fair, you know, that’s a fair conclusion.
GROSS: So you’re saying your opinion on gay marriage changed as opposed to you – you just felt it was comfortable…
CLINTON: You know, somebody is always first, Terry. Somebody’s always out front and thank goodness they are. But that doesn’t mean that those who joined 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 our country if nobody changed their mind. And thank goodness so many of us have.
GROSS: So that’s one for you changed your mind? (Laughing).
CLINTON: You know, I really – I have to say, I think you are very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.
GROSS: I am just trying to clarify so I can understand.
CLINTON: No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you’re trying to say that, you know, I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like 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. No, that is not true.
CLINTON: I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you probably did either. This was an incredibly 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 of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.
P.S. At the risk of wading into the Clinton wars, this interview reminds me of why I hope Hillary Clinton doesn’t run: these types of verbal battles will happen again and again, with all the hints of opportunism and shadings of truth and unspoken back story (Brian Lehrer said yesterday that Gross and Clinton are at dagger-points because Gross once asked her whether her husband is a sex addict). I’m sick of the story and the dynamic.