Bill Clinton warned a close friend in 2000 that Hillary’s New York Senate run could suffer because she was not “comfortable around gay people who were kind of acting out, or pushing her to the limit,” and that she had a “general discomfort” around gay rights issues.
That close friend, as it happens, was author and historian Taylor Branch, who conducted dozens of late-night interviews with Bill from the early ’90s to 2000 to write a book chronicling the Clinton White House.
The president kept all the sole audio recordings of those interviews, but Branch took notes and recounted audio notes into a tape recorder after each interview session concluded.
According to one of those audio clips from June 10, 1999 obtained by the Free Beacon, Branch was in the middle of an interview with President Clinton when Bill stepped out of the room to take a phone call from Hillary.
When he came back into the room, he was distracted by his wife’s stance on gay rights.
“[Bill] came in and he said, ‘You know I’ve had much more contact in my life with gay people than Hillary has,’” Branch says in the audio recording. “He said, ‘I think she’s really a little put off by some of this stuff.’”
Then, according to Branch, the president reflected on having signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, allowing states to pass same-sex marriage bans, telling his friend, “I thought it was right at the time, and I’m not sure that it is.”
“[Bill] said, ‘Generally I support the gay agenda right down the line,’” said Branch. “He said this was hard for me, and I’m sure there are still a few things that are hard for me to swallow.”
Then Clinton reportedly told Branch that, “Hillary, emotionally speaking, still finds the issue harder to swallow than I do. And that it could be difficult for her in New York politics, how far she’ll be asked to go.”
Branch concluded that Clinton was “essentially I think saying that Hillary had kind of a conservative religious temperament, and was not likely to be comfortable around gay people who were kind of acting out, or pushing her to the limit. She did have general discomfort.”
Hillary’s evolution on gay rights has been a touchy subject for the 2016 Democratic front-runner, and this recording adds to speculation that she may have felt the need to come out in favor of marriage equality for political reasons — a point which ruffled her feathers when Terry Gross pressed her about it on Fresh Air last June.
“I think you’re trying to say I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong,” Clinton told Gross, annoyance in her voice.
By contrast, fellow Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has a well-documented track record standing up for gay rights for decades.
Yet Clinton has developed a passionate and vocal support base among gay men, something George Chauncey Jr., a professor of history and American studies at Yale and author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, attributes in no small part to “that resonance of the long-suffering woman with older gay men,” pointing to Judy Garland as a reference point.
For others, it comes down to practical electability — if Hillary has a better shot at keeping a Republican out of the White House than Sanders, her perhaps-calculated tardiness to the gay rights table might be overlooked for fear of a Bush or a Trump setting up shop in the Oval.