CNN couldn't stop talking about former President Clinton's op-ed on Friday. Every hour between 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. ET, the network touted Clinton asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed as president, spending over a half hour of coverage on it.
Anchor Don Lemon reported the op-ed four times between 9 and 11 a.m. ET. Anchor Ashleigh Banfield ran two segments on it during the 11 a..m. ET hour. Lemon, openly-gay, voiced his support: "I mean, when you sit right down and just look at it, it's really all about civil and equal rights, human rights. We're a country that treats everybody equal, I mean everyone should be treated equally under the Constitution." [Video below the break. Audio here.]
Lemon's panel clearly supported Clinton's pro-gay marriage stance. GOP strategist Ana Navarro remarked that Clinton "didn't want to get caught on the wrong side of history on this issue." Liberal Van Jones called Clinton's about-face "unbelievable. It's extraordinary. I'm very proud of President Clinton."
"Bill Clinton is having a change of heart about the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed 17 years ago," reported anchor Fredricka Whitfield, without questioning whether Clinton's opposing stances were both politically expedient in their respective times.
Anchor Ashleigh Banfield touted "prominent Republicans" who signed an amicus brief opposing California's ban on same-sex marriage. CNN legal analyst Jeff Toobin termed Clinton's turn-about "remarkable."
Starting Point panel member Lauren Ashburn strangely referenced women's suffrage: "We haven't even had 100 years of women's suffrage, and I think that he [Clinton] is entitled to change his opinion, and that it is a good thing for the country to evolve the way that he thinks it should evolve."
During the 2 p.m. hour of Newsroom, guests Jory Des Jardins of BlogHer and radio personality Dede McGuire both approved of Clinton's stance and argued that it was okay for him to change his mind.
"I applaud it. I think that every politician has the right to change their mind. I wish they did it more, because we wouldn't have the problems that we have now with Congress," remarked Des Jardins.
McGuire asked, "why are we tripping when politicians flip-flop? I like that. I like knowing that you're not perfect and it's either black or white.
Not every CNN panel member smiled on Clinton's stance. CNN media critic Howard Kurtz scoffed at Clinton's "political" maneuvering: "This is so politically convenient on Bill Clinton's part. He signed – there is no risk to him now. It's become the mainstream position of the Democratic party. You know what I didn't see in this op-ed? 'I was wrong, I'm sorry, I misjudged it.'"
A transcript of the segments, which aired on CNN on March 8, is as follows:
7:26 a.m. EST
LAUREN ASHBURN, editor-in-chief, Daily Download: We haven't even had 100 years of women's suffrage, and I think that he's entitled to change his opinion, and that it is a good thing for the country to evolve the way that he thinks it should evolve.
HOWARD KURTZ, Washington bureau chief, Newsweek/The Daily Beast: This is so politically convenient on Bill Clinton's part. He signed – there is no risk to him now. It's become the mainstream position of the Democratic party. You know what I didn't see in this op-ed? "I was wrong, I'm sorry, I misjudged it."
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Of course it's political. C'mon.
9:40 a.m. EST
ANA NAVARRO: Bill Clinton is getting old. Bill Clinton has faced mortality and I think he didn't want to get caught on the wrong side of history on this issue. Like me, he has many gay friends, gay couples living in a loving relationship. I think it's very difficult to look at your gay friends in the eye and say you deserve less rights than I do. Bill Clinton's a man who has got no discrimination in his heart. I think this is the right thing to do at the right time.
VAN JONES, CNN contributor: But for a president, a former president to say to the world I want the Supreme Court to strike down part of my legacy because justice is more important than my legacy, that is unbelievable. It's extraordinary. I'm very proud of President Clinton.
NAVARRO: I hope that what they focus on is discrimination. Equal rights for everyone. And I have hope with this court that it will reflect this evolution that has happened in the American people. It is at this point undeniable, Don, that it's happening.
DON LEMON: I mean, when you sit right down and just look at it, it's really all about civil and equal rights, human rights. We're a country that treats everybody equal, I mean everyone should be treated equally under the Constitution.
ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: Bill Clinton is trying to undo something he did while he was in the White House. He's asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act which, by the way as president, he signed into law. DOMA defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, but it also does something very controversial nowadays. It keeps same-sex couples from getting the same benefits that traditional couples get even in the states where they've determined same-sex marriage is legal. Feds don't recognize that when it comes to a lot of the rights. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, President Clinton said this: "The justices" – the Supreme Court – "must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all else, and is therefore constitutional. As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution."
Let's bring in Jeffrey Toobin who is the author of "The Oath" and senior CNN legal analyst and also Evan Wolfson, who is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry. So my first question is this Jeff, and I want to be very clear to our viewers because it can be very confusing. What President Clinton is writing about is not the freedom to get married to a same-sex spouse. This is about recognizing the same-sex laws that are in place. What is the significance of writing an op-ed like this? Because this is not an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, is it?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN senior legal analyst: Right. I think it's more political significance than legal. But I do think it's politically significant. I can't think of any law where a president said I signed it and I now think it's unconstitutional. That's a big change. And I think it's an indicative of how much attitudes have changed towards same-sex marriage over the past two decades. Legally, the Supreme Court is going to decide this case based on the briefs, based on the arguments. But the justices are real people in the real world and they see how much public opinion has changed, as reflected in part by this op-ed. So I think this is a straw in the wind indicating how much attitudes have changed.
BANFIELD: Public opinion. You know what, I want to just – we dug back to 1996 when DOMA was signed, just because I had a feeling you were going to refer to that, Jeff Toobin. And I want to be very clear that when Gallup asked its question, they did not use the word "same-sex," they didn't even use the word "gay." They questioned people using the word "homosexual." So that could change. People have different views about different words. So I want to be clear that when people were asked whether homosexual marriage should be considered valid back in 1996, only 27 percent said yes. So that's 1996. And I want to fast-forward to just February when CBS News asked the question should it be legal for same-sex couples to get married, and the number is 54. So it's a bit apples and oranges, but kind of apples and apples. 27 percent to 54 percent. Evan Wolfson, the culture has changed, but the culture has been changing a lot. Is this too late?
EVAN WOLFSON, founder and president, Freedom to Marry: No, not at all. I think President Clinton's journey to understanding why marriage matters to gay people and how wrong exclusion is very much mirrors the journey that the majority of Americans have taken as you just showed. We've literally doubled the number of Americans who support the freedom to marry and who understand that creating a gay exception to the normal way in which the government treats married couples has no place under our Constitution. And of course President Clinton is joined by not just Democrats, but Republicans, not just labor leaders but business leaders, all of whom have filed brief after brief after brief in front of the Supreme Court saying this needs to be struck down.
BANFIELD: Can I name some of those, since you brought up the amicus briefs that have been added to the – there's just what, I think 130 or some-odd prominent Republicans who have joined just recently. It went from 70 to about 130 have joined the amicus brief in support of –
WOLFSON: And counting.
BANFIELD: And counting. Here are just some of the names that we highlighted off a very long list of prominent Republicans. Clint Eastwood, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Jon Huntsman, Ken Mehlman, Tom Ridge. You can see the level of their involvement in the Republican party right there on your screen. Jeffrey Toobin, the President – President Clinton back in '96 when he signed DOMA, he signed it and he said these words, I'm going to quote him. "I have long opposed governmental recognition of same gender marriages" – long opposed – "and this legislation is consistent with that position." So this is the biggest about face for a president I think I've ever seen. Maybe I'm speaking too quickly. But does this matter to justices who are supposed to look at statute and decide on statute alone?
TOOBIN: Well, as a technical legal matter, public opinion doesn't matter, what people who are not part of litigation doesn't matter. But in the real world where the justices to be sure live, all of this stuff matters. Now, is it enough to get five votes? I think there are clearly four votes, the four democratic appointees on the Supreme Court, to overturn DOMA, but will Anthony Kennedy join them? Will John Roberts join them? I don't know, but I'm sure public opinion, while technically irrelevant, will play a part in the deliberations in the Court.
BANFIELD: Who's that fifth vote, Jeffrey?
TOOBIN: Well, it's most likely to be Anthony Kennedy, since he has been a supporter of gay rights in previous cases.
BANFIELD: But we did say that about ObamaCare, too.
TOOBIN: And I was wrong.
BANFIELD: I wasn't going to bring that up.
TOOBIN: I was so wrong, Ashleigh.
BANFIELD: Jeffrey Toobin, you are so right so often.
TOOOBIN: But I was wrong then.
ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: We've been talking a lot about Bill Clinton's famous now op-ed today on the Defense of Marriage Act in the Washington Post. When he writes that he calls on the Supreme Court to overturn the act, that was an act that he as president signed into law. Our Wolf Blitzer joins me now from Washington, D.C. Wolf, I wanted to get your take on this because you were covering Bill Clinton at the time. And you were covering Congress at the time. And he says it was a very, very different time. In fact, that's his quote, "it was a very different time." He states numbers like 81 out of 535 members of Congress actually opposed that bill which meant that the best he could do was what he did, so that there wouldn't be a constitutional amendment. It almost sounds like he did the best thing to make sure that he'd buy the movement ten more years. Do you buy into this, knowing what the mood really was at the White House back then?
WOLF BLITZER: Well the mood 16, 17 years ago was certainly a lot different as far as gay marriage is concerned, than it is across the country right now. It's become much more acceptable over all of these years. At the time, it wasn't very acceptable and then-President Bill Clinton was opposed to same-sex marriage. He made that clear. He writes in his article today, as you point out in the Washington Post that he signed the Defense of Marriage Act because he was afraid that if it wouldn't be signed, the momentum leading for a formal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage would have gone forward, setting back the movement for a long time. And you have got to keep this whole issue of Bill Clinton and gay rights in some sort of perspective. I remember it very vividly, because I started covering him during the transition after he was elected in 1992 before he took office January 20th, 1993, I was at Little Rock, Arkansas. He was then the governor of Arkansas, the president-elect. And that's when during the campaign, he had basically said gays should be allowed to serve in the military, but he quickly retracted that after the uproar after he was elected president. There was a lot of opposition from within the military, the branches of the U.S. Military, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell opposed allowing gays to serve in the military. And only then months later, 1993, did they come up with a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy this which was seen as a compromise of sorts. But it clearly was a deviation from where Bill Clinton had been during the campaign where he said the military doesn't have a person to waste, everybody's got to play a role. And that caused a lot of controversy at the time. But obviously he now opposes "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, as so many others across the board, Republicans and Democrats, have come to do, as well.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD: Bill Clinton is having a change of heart about the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed 17 years ago. He now wants the U.S. Supreme court to overturn the law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. Clinton wrote in this Washington Post editorial saying, quote, "On March 27th, DOMA will come before the U.S. Supreme Court and the justices must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all and is therefore constitutional. As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and in fact, incompatible with our Constitution." End quote, that from the former President Bill Clinton. CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin joining me now from New York. So Jeff, very interesting. Clinton said in this op-ed that 1996 was a very different time. So how influential will the former president's words be when the justices take this up?
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Well, it's really in a remarkable, just event in American history to have a President of the United States say that a bill he signed was unconstitutional. I can't think of another example of a president doing that. You know, as a technical legal matter, this is not relevant to the justices. The justices are dealing with the law of the Constitution and the precedence of the Supreme Court. But in the real world, the changes in all attitudes towards gay rights, towards same-sex marriage, I think will have a big impact on the justices.
WHITFIELD: And to what degree? Because we are talking about an evolution of thinking. We are talking about even the justices, you know, some might acknowledge that their legal opinions change just as times change. Contrary – whether it's contrary to what the law states.
TOOBIN: You know, this is a philosophical debate that goes on at the Supreme Court all the time. You have justices like Antonin Scalia who say the Constitution means what it meant in the 18th century when it was ratified by the states. And that's all it means. It doesn't evolve. It doesn't live. You have other justices like Ruth Bader Ginsberg who say of course the Constitution means something different. The society changes, so our understanding of words like equal protection change. That's philosophical split. The court is split about four to four to one on that issue. Anthony Kennedy is the justice in the middle, usually, and his vote will probably determine the outcome of this case.
WHITFIELD: And is this, one – is this an argument that you see will take an awful long time before there's a real conclusion coming from that court?
TOOBIN: Well, I don't think it will be all that long. The Supreme Court term ends always at the end of June. We'll have an answer both on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act as well as the constitutionality of Proposition 8. The law that said no same-sex marriage in California. Both of those cases will be resolved legally. But the political fight certainly will continue long after June.
BROOKE BALDWIN: Curious if you think he's doing this just to protect a legacy?
JORY DES JARDINS, co-founder, BlogHer: Yes. I do. And I applaud it. I think that every politician has the right to change their mind. I wish they did it more, because we wouldn't have the problems that we have now with Congress. But I also don't think that there's anything wrong with changing your mind afterwards. I personally believe that Clinton did what he felt he had to do at the time. Which, in a country that clearly did not have any laws that were protecting people who -- gay people who wanted to get married, he had to do what he had to do. He had to pick his battles. And I think it's still – he still believe that he can go back and right this. And it's a time when he can right it.
DEDE MCGUIRE: And to say that it would be, is he trying, is it going to be a part of his legacy, I think that that's already a part of President Obama. My thing about this one is, why are we tripping when politicians flip-flop? I like that. I like knowing that you're not perfect and it's either black or white. I like the fact that you could say hey, I was wrong, and it takes a big person, a big man –