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January 05, 2017

Terry Gross reflects on awkward exchange with Hillary Clinton on gay marriage

'Fresh Air' host says Clinton was evasive in viral interview, but admits being unclear

Terry Gross, the longtime host of WHYY's "Fresh Air," is a lot of things; inquisitive, insightful and informed come to mind. But being unclear or confusing isn't how anyone would describe Gross. As someone who interviews celebrities, academics and politicians on a daily basis for her nationally syndicated show on Philly's NPR affiliate, getting to the point is part of her job.

Yet confusing is exactly how Gross felt she came off during her famous 2014 interview with now-former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, specifically when she questioned Clinton about her position on gay marriage, an exchange that almost immediately went viral.

Gross reflected on that exchange in an interview on the "Longform" podcast, published online Wednesday. During the 2014 interview, Gross asked Clinton what it's like "when you're in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage that you actually believe in?"

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton publicly opposed gay marriage. Clinton did support civil unions as early as 2000 and spoke out against a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2004 while in the U.S. Senate, but at the time, still believed marriage was "a sacred bond between a man and a woman." In 2013 she officially came out in support of gay marriage.

Under that context, Gross persistently questioned Clinton as to whether she changed her mind on gay marriage, or whether she held back her real view until the American public was ready. Things got awkward. Here's an excerpt, via the Atlantic:

GROSS: So that's one for you changed your mind.

CLINTON: You know, I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words, and playing with what is such an important issue.

GROSS: I'm just trying to clarify so that I can understand—

CLINTON: No, I don't think you are trying to clarify. 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. So let me just state what I feel that 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 saying, I'm sorry, I just want to clarify what I was saying, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, 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 saying.

CLINTON: No, that's not, no. That is not true.

GROSS: Okay.

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.

"I thought it was the most dynamic part of the interview, just in terms of 'radio,' you know, because Hillary Clinton is incredibly smart and incredibly astute about policy and all that," Gross said of that specific exchange on the "Longform" podcast. "But, I wanted to hear something, like, you know, more personal, more reflective, and it is a little bit difficult, as it is with most politicians, to get them off talking points."

Gross went on to point out that a big part of the reason the exchange went viral very quickly was because it was picked up by the conservative PAC America Rising.

"Now, I thought maybe it went viral because, you know, gay people felt like, 'What does this say about her position on gay rights?'" Gross said. "But if my understanding of how it went viral is correct, it went viral because people on the right were trying to use something that would alienate liberals against her, would alienate gay people against her."

Gross added that it helps her "understand why politicians like Hillary Clinton aren't necessarily terribly forthcoming in an interview."

While Gross said that she felt Clinton was being "evasive" with her answers, she wished she had been "clearer" as an interviewer. She tried explaining to "Longform" what she was really trying to ask Clinton about gay marriage:

"That sometimes, if you want to be an effective leader, you have to have people who are ready to hear what you are going to say, or where you want to lead them. And I think part of being a good leader is judging when the time is right for a certain position. I don't think that's necessarily - that can be a cynical thing, I don't think that's necessarily a cynical thing. So I didn't necessarily mean that as a negative thing, when I said that perhaps you were for marriage equality beforehand, but you didn't feel... that the people were ready yet."

Gross said that she and Clinton both "could have done a better job" with the exchange. You can listen to the full "Longform" podcast here.