Bill Clinton Talks About His Role On DADT and DOMA
August 14th, 2009
Former president Bill Clinton spoke yesterday as the keynote speaker at the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh. His speech was interrupted by a question from LGBT activist Lane Hudson, asking Clinton about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Clinton was definitely put off about being interrupted, but when he finally got around to answering the question, Clinton pointed out that DADT passed Congress by a veto-proof majority in both houses, the result, he said, of inadequate LGBT lobbying in Congress at the time. I think he’s right on this one. He has gotten the blame for DADT’s passage, when it actually came about by a Democratically-controlled Congress acting to block his initiative to allow gays to serve in the military. And indeed, DADT did pass with a veto-proof majority, which removed his role in the matter.
But that doesn’t hold true for DOMA. Clinton says that he “didn’t like signing DOMA,” but did so to head off “a very reactionary Congress” which, he said, was set to pass a constitutional amendment. But he didn’t address why his 1996 presidential campaign purchased advertising on Christian and right wing radio bragging signing DOMA into law as proof of his “pro-family” credentials.
Update: Lane Hudson posted on Firedog Lake about why he interrupted Clinton’s speech:
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.
Lane is certainly right about one thing: It’s pretty dumb to expect bloggers to sit down, shut up, and just listen. It’s even dumber when that same message comes from fellow bloggers and activists:
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.
What was that expression about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable?
The transcript below is courtesy of Andrés Duque:
Lane Hudson: Mr. President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and “Don\’t Ask Don\’t Tell” right now? Please…
President Clinton: Hey, you know, you ought to go to one of those congressional health care meetings. You did really well there. I\’ll be glad to talk about that. If you will… If you will sit down and let me talk, I\’ll be glad to discuss it. But if you stand up and scream I won\’t be able to talk. But the other guys would love to have ya. I wanna talk a little about that too.
But anyway, so, here we are in a different world. Now, it\’s not like the 1990\’s. 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.
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% in the House and exceeding 70% 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 into the military. And let me remind you that the public opinion is now more strongly in our favor than it was sixteen 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 A..” – 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 that, if you will accept this, here is 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 even more… 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 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 – what did they spend? – 150,000 dollars to get rid of a valuable 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 1st Gulf War and all their commanders knew they were gay, they let them go and risk their lives ’cause they needed them, and then as soon as the 1st 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 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 out to states and the 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 Levin referendum 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 presenting that. The President doesn\’t even get to veto that. It\’s the Congress can refer constitutional amendments to the states. I didn\’t like signing DOMA, and I certainly didn\’t like the constraints it would put on benefits, and I\’ve done everything I\’ve 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, and I don\’t like that eith… I don\’t like the DOMA.
But actually all these things illustrate the point I was trying to make. America has rapidly moved to a different place to a lot of these issues and so what we have to decide is what we are going to do about it.