Clinton recollections draw fire
by Lisa Keen
Former President Bill Clinton lambasted the gay community in a speech to a national convention of liberal bloggers in Pittsburgh last week, blaming the community itself for the enactment of two pieces of anti-gay legislation during his administration. But gay leaders weren't buying the blame. They said it was Clinton who failed the community.
In a keynote speech before the fourth annual meeting of Netroots Nation, Clinton departed from prepared remarks to respond to an audience member. The audience member, gay blogger Lane Hudson, interrupted Clinton's speech to challenge him on his record as president. Clinton signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning openly gay people from the military and the Defense of Marriage Act, banning federal recognition of same-sex relationships.
"You want to talk about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?" replied a clearly angry Clinton. "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."
On DOMA, Clinton said, he signed the bill to "keep the Republican Congress from sending" a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to the states.
"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," said Clinton. "I think it's obvious that something had to be done. ..."
That's not how many gay leaders at the time remember it.
Elizabeth Birch, who was head of the Human Rights Campaign during six of Clinton's eight years in the White House, said Clinton signed DOMA in September 1996 "because he wanted to get re-elected" in November 1996.
"He made a completely incorrect assessment that it would cost him the election," said Birch, saying she "completely rejects" Clinton's claim that gays failed to deliver support in Congress. Clinton's claim that he signed DOMA to head off a constitutional amendment, she said, "is a complete fabrication."
"He folded to his own cowardice," said Birch. "The truth is he never cared enough about any protection for gay and lesbian people and was unwilling to expend any energy or spend one ounce of political capital to get anything done. His record is a complete disappointment."
David Mixner led the gay vote in 1992 to support Clinton's initial election but abandoned him after he signed DADT and DOMA. He said he was "shocked" at Clinton's remarks in Pittsburgh.
Writing on his personal blog, Mixner recalls Clinton "allowed Senator Sam Nunn to lead him around by the nose" on DADT "to show how endangered straights would be by gays."
Nunn, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, held hearings in 1993 on Clinton's idea to allow gays to serve in the military, but orchestrated media visits to sleeping quarters on submarines and ships to push, instead, for a policy that banned gays.
Mixner and others said Clinton failed to provide any significant leadership on the issue.
"The president's job," wrote Mixner in a blog posted Monday, "was to protect an unpopular minority from the tyranny of a majority mob and he failed to do it. He gave in to the mob and then blamed us."
Joe Solmonese, the current president of the Human Rights Campaign, called Clinton's remarks "disingenuous."
"It certainly doesn't tell the real story," said Solmonese. "It's sometimes too easy for elected officials to put the onus back on the community. We hear that all the time – 'We thought the community was going to do A-B-C,'" said Solmonese.
"He came in and said he wanted to overturn the ban in military, and set out to overturn the ban and then he was taken by surprise with resistance," said Solmonese, "but at the end of the day, how much political will was he was going to expend?"
Audience applauded Clinton
It was a former HRC staffer that prompted Clinton's remarks in Pittsburgh: activist-blogger Lane Hudson, who is widely credited with having forced Representative Mark Foley (R-Florida) to resign over his e-mails with a congressional pages.
In an article for HuffingtonPost.com, Hudson said he asked Clinton, "Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Right now?" He said others at the conference yelled at him, booed, and told him to sit down.
When Clinton claimed that the most the gay community did "was to attack me instead of getting me some support in the Congress, they applauded loudly.
Clinton continued. He told the audience that, when then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell came up with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," "it was defined ... much differently than it was implemented."
"He said, 'If you will accept this, here's what we'll do,'" recalled Clinton. "'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," said Clinton. "So nobody regrets how this was implemented anymore 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 of how it would be eliminated [sic]."
"I hated what happened," said Clinton. "I regret it. But I didn't think at the time I had any choice if I wanted any progress to be made at all."
"The thing that changed me forever on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" he said, "is 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. 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 needs to be changed."
"The reason I signed DOMA," he said, "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 and keep the Republican Congress from sending that – the president doesn't even get to veto that," Clinton said.
"I didn't like signing DOMA and the constraints that were put on benefits," said Clinton, "and I've done everything I could."
Evan Wolfson, a longtime gay legal activist and current head of the national Freedom to Marry group, agrees with other gay leaders that Clinton is attempting to "rewrite history."
"It would serve everyone better if President Clinton would be more forthright and talk directly about why his position has evolved."
"We don't need to look backward," said Wolfson, "but moving forward, he can be a very important voice in explaining to the American people why he has changed his mind. ... Rather than inviting people to argue with him over what he did in 1996, it would be better if he talked about why he's moved ahead."