I love Bill Clinton, but we all make mistakes. Sometimes we even are forced to do things we don't want to. That's why I was prepared to ask Bill Clinton a tough question last night as he delivered the opening keynote address at Netroots Nation 2009.
But it became clear there would be no questions. As I sat in the audience thinking about how Netroots Nation is about celebrating the most open forum of discussion ever to exist, it occurred to me that we were nothing more than a captive audience being talked to. One way communication was NOT what we were there to celebrate and advance.
As I considered this, I turned to my friend who had helped to formulate the question I wanted to ask and said, "I might just yell something out." I couldn't believe I said it. I mean, blogging and speaking my mind is one thing, but to yell it out in a large public forum to a former President of the United States is quite another.
He talked about a new progressive era and how America has changed. Yet, there was no reflection on how that change could undo some big mistakes form his Presidency. So, at the point that he said, "We need an honest, principled debate", I knew I had to try to stimulate the discussion. So, I stood and said, "Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Right now?"
The immediate response shocked me at the time and still does. Those surrounding me yelled at me, booed, and told me to sit down. One elderly lady even told me to leave. While I was among the supposed most progressive audience in the country, they sought to silence someone asking a former President to speak out on behalf of repealing two laws that TOOK AWAY RIGHTS OF A MINORITY. I was shocked.
The immediate Twitter stream with the hashtag #NN09 was not much different. I sent out a few tweets and once people who knew me saw it was me and that I was asking Clinton to call for repeal of those two discriminatory laws, there was plenty of support. Thanks yall! Here is a link to the video. I'll let you judge for yourselves the reaction of the audience (I especially LOVE the "I love you Bill!!!" while justifying DADT.)
What happened that was really important, however, is that President Clinton did address the issues that I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have without my forcing the conversation. Of course, he started with a strident defense of how DOMA and DADT went down on his watch. But, I already knew that story. It was the present that I cared about, not the past.
Thankfully, he got around to the present. He made the strongest objection to DADT he has ever made to the best of my knowledge. He clearly called for the policy being changed. On DOMA, he spent much less time, but lamented its passage and doing a half-hearted kind of call for repeal, "I don't like the DOMA".
It's not spectacular, but it's progress.
Too often, we don't challenge people to admit mistakes. Too often we hold idols up to a place they don't deserve. Like I said, I love Bill Clinton, but we all make mistakes and live in a less than perfect world. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for the perfect.
He mentioned in his speech that he admired that we bloggers could speak our mind. That's what I did. In today's world, a former President that has now said he supports marriage equality should find it easy to say without equivocation that he supports repealing two discriminatory laws that he felt he had no choice but to sign into law. He didn't do that, but he needs to.
So, to the folks in the audience at #NN09, I just wanted to make sure he talked about two issues that mean a great deal to me and many other. (I didn't know it at the time, but Lt. Dan Choi was in the audience.) I wouldn't have yelled from the audience and interrupted if we weren't being held as a captive audience.
But at the end of the day, I'll take the heckler title if you all want to give it to me. The yelling at me is okay too. Heck, I'll even take the initial comment from the President that likened me to a health care town hall protester. None of it matters because a little bit of progress was made. President Clinton even came around later in his speech saying he was glad "that young man challenged me tonight".
There is hope for our heralded former President to make those unequivocal statements that I was hoping for. Even more importantly, I hope that my fellow progressive movement activists will never sit in a captive audience and talk down to other who are working hard to advance progressive issue.
Transcript of the exchange with Clinton, via Pams' House Blend, which she got via Rex Wockner:
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.
Follow Lane Hudson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tlanehudson