Friday, August 14, 2009

Bill Clinton Interrupted During Netroots Nation Keynote Speech - Answers Demanding DADT and DOMA Questions

While giving his keynote speech at the Netroots Nation plenary in Pittsburgh Thursday night, former president Bill Clinton was interrupted by blogger and activist Lane Hudson, who stood up from the audience and demanded, "Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Right now?

Clinton didn't take long to respond by saying that Hudson should to go the unruly town halls on health care. "You'd do really well there," which was met with laughter and some applause.

But Hudson was not deterred and interrupted again. Clinton's tone quickly changed and gave the most direct and painfully honest answer I've ever heard him give, placing a lot of the responsibility of the passage of DADT back on the LGBT population.

"You wanna talk about ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn’t deliver me any support in the Congress and they voted by a veto-proof majority in both houses against my attempt to let gays serve in the military and the media supported them. They raised all kinds of devilment. And all most of you did was to attack me instead of getting some support in the congress. Now, that’s the truth."

See a video from the view point of the audience by Jeremy Hooper of G-A-Y blog.

Thanks to reporter Rex Wockner, here's a full transcript of the exchange. It also includes Clinton's reasoning behind signing DOMA.
Lane Hudson (screaming from the audience): Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don't Ask Don't Tell right now? Please.

Bill Clinton: ... You want to talk about Don't Ask Don't Tell, I'll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn't deliver me any support in the Congress and they voted by a veto-proof majority in both houses against my attempt to let gays serve in the military, and the media supported them. They raised all kinds of devilment. And all most of you did was to attack me instead of getting me some support in the Congress. Now that's the truth.

Secondly -- it's true! You know, you may have noticed that presidents aren't dictators. They voted -- they were about to vote for the old policy by margins exceeding 80 percent in the House and exceeding 70 percent in the Senate. The gave test votes out there to send me a message that they were going to reverse any attempt I made by executive order to force them to accept gays in the military. And let me remind you that the public opinion now is more strongly in our favor than it was 16 years ago, and I have continued supporting it. That John Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under me, was against Don't Ask -- was against letting gays serve -- is now in favor of it. This is a different world. That's the point I'm trying to make.

Let me also say something that never got sufficient publicity at the time: When General Colin Powell came up with this Don't Ask Don't Tell, it was defined while he was chairman much differently than it was implemented. He said: 'If you will accept this, here's what we'll do. We will not pursue anyone. Any military members out of uniform will be free to march in gay rights parades, go to gay bars, go to political meetings. Whatever mailings they get, whatever they do in their private lives, none of this will be a basis for dismissal.' It all turned out to be a fraud because of the enormous reaction against it among the middle-level officers and down after it was promulgated and Colin was gone. So nobody regrets how this was implemented any more than I do. But the Congress also put that into law by a veto-proof majority, and many of your friends voted for that, believing the explanation about how it would be eliminated. So, I hated what happened. I regret it. But I didn't have, I didn't think at the time, any choice if I wanted any progress to be made at all. Look, I think it's ridiculous. Can you believe they spent -- whatever they spent -- $150,000 to get rid of a valued Arabic speaker recently?

And, you know, the thing that changed me forever on Don't Ask Don't Tell was when I learned that 130 gay service people were allowed to serve and risk their lives in the first Gulf War, and all their commanders knew they were gay; they let them go out there and risk their lives because they needed them, and then as soon as the first Gulf War was over, they kicked them out. That's all I needed to know, that's all anybody needs to know, to know that this policy should be changed.

Now, while we're at it, let me just say one thing about DOMA, since you -- the reason I signed DOMA was -- and I said when I signed it -- that I thought the question of whether gays should marry should be left up to states and to religious organizations, and if any church or other religious body wanted to recognize gay marriage, they ought to. We were attempting at the time, in a very reactionary Congress, to head off an attempt to send a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the states. And if you look at the 11 referenda much later -- in 2004, in the election -- which the Republicans put on the ballot to try to get the base vote for President Bush up, I think it's obvious that something had to be done to try to keep the Republican Congress from presenting that. The President doesn't even get to veto that. The Congress can refer constitutional amendments to the states. I didn't like signing DOMA and I certainly didn't like the constraints that were put on benefits, and I've done everything I could -- and I am proud to say that the State Department was the first federal department to restore benefits to gay partners in the Obama administration, and I think we are going forward in the right direction now for federal employees. ...

But, actually, all these things illustrate the point I'm trying to make. America has rapidly moved to a different place on a lot of these issues, and so what we have to decide is what we are going to do about it. Right now, the Republicans are sitting around rooting for the president to fail, as nearly as I can see.
On UStream, you can listen to the rest of Clinton's speech which touches on the healtch care debate, the Obama administration, the involvement of bloggers and activists and their role in ensuring a progressive future for the nation. (Click on the tag marker to skip directly to Clinton.)

Lane Hudson, the blogger activist who stood up and challenged Clinton, has written a piece on the Huffington Post, "Why I interrupted Bill Clinton's speech at Netroots Nation."

So what do you make of Clinton's response? Did we, the LGBT population, drop the ball when it came to DADT and DOMA? I don't think that anyone can argue that Clinton didn't stick his neck out for us, but has history twisted the story a bit, putting the blame more on him for the passage of DADT and DOMA? Or should we be equally to blame, if not more, for not going full force in stopping them, since those laws directly affect us?

Can we learn something from this? Both HRC and Equality Across America have campaigns (the latter kicking into gear after the National Equality March) in place for us to lobby our representatives. If a DADT or DOMA repeal actually hit the Senate and House floors, will we have learned enough from history to do everything we can to garner support from Congress?

Despite this amazing resurgence of grassroots activity, there's still lots of complacency within our communities. How can we get them to call and email their representatives? What can we do to get them more involved?

At this critical juncture for our rights and the hope of a progressive future, we can't take any chances.

Photo by Andrés Duque of Blabbeando. Additional photos here.

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