It will take more than sloganeering to shift our national culture.
I caught the political bug while in college in 1992, seduced by the charming optimism of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. At the time, I was interning as a radio news reporter at KQED in San Francisco. One of my assignments was to cover a Clinton visit. Although I was still a political neophyte, there was something special about this candidate. With a central theme of “change,” he inspired and instilled hope—while making the future seem limitless.
Beyond his political gifts, Clinton substantively appealed to me because he was in favor of gay and lesbian equality. I had come out four years earlier, and a pervasive silence on GLBT issues had been the norm for political discourse. By and large, “gay” was something to be whispered in the cloakroom—not an issue thoughtfully discussed by the most powerful political figures in the land.
Bill Clinton changed this.
On May 11, 1992, the presidential candidate made an unprecedented appearance at a gay fundraiser at the Palace Theater in Hollywood. Organized by GLBT advocate David Mixner, $100,000 was raised for the Clinton campaign. The candidate gave an historic speech that led the audience to break out in spontaneous applause on several occasions.
“Tonight I want to talk to you about how we can be one people again, without regard to race or gender or sexual orientation or age or region or income,” Clinton told the appreciative crowd. “Those of you who are here tonight represent a community of our nation’s gifted people whom we have been willing to squander. We cannot afford to waste the capacity, the contributions, the heart, the soul, and the mind of gay and lesbian Americans….What I came here to tell you in simple terms, is, I have a vision and you’re a part of it.”
Today’s young people (and many older voters) forget Clinton’s mesmerizing and momentous outreach to the GLBT community. He offered groundbreaking opportunities and an unsurpassed vision of hope. Clinton’s call for unity sparked the imagination and inspired a new generation who wanted a break from the old ways. Indeed, it becomes crystal clear when one reads Clinton’s old speeches that he was the Barack Obama of 1992—the change agent who would transform Washington.
So, what happened?
From the moment the Clintons set foot in the White House, they endured unrelenting attacks by the right, who saw the family as illegitimate usurpers of ascendant conservative power.
The far right—mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, such as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA)—kneecapped Clinton’s efforts to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Of course, Clinton deserves blame for cravenly capitulating and allowing the disastrous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to become law. But, let’s not forget that it was a concerted effort by the right wing to humiliate Clinton that resulted in this fiasco.
Led by the Clinton-hating tycoon Richard Mellon Scaife and Rev. Jerry Falwell, the barrage of phony “scandals” and outrageous allegations continued unabated. Matters got worse when the irrepressible Newt Gingrich became House Speaker in 1994. The Clinton obsession reached a head, so to speak, during the Monica Lewinsky drama. In what amounted to an attempted coup d’etat, the right wing tried to impeach Clinton for private sexual relations.
The truth is, the conservative movement is as pugnacious as it is repugnant. It is arrogance with a self-centered sense of entitlement, with its unpatriotic actions wrapped in the flag and justified in the name of God.
As imperfect and, at times, disappointing as the Clintons may have been, for many years they were all that stood in the way of the conservative movement’s complete domination and takeover of America.
Unfortunately, for their successful efforts at partially derailing the conservative juggernaut, the Clintons are being blamed for sullying the tone in Washington. This twisted line of reasoning reminds me of the kid who finally retaliates against his bullying tormentors, only to be sent to the school’s office and reprimanded for fighting. The historical revisionism on the Clinton era must stop because it does not conform to reality. They did not pick the fights, they just retaliated, and often won. If Obama is elected president and faces the same frontal assault as Bill and Hillary, he will suffer precisely the same partisan fate. We can only hope that he has the killer instinct and resourcefulness to effectively fight back.
There are many reasons to vote for Obama: He is smart, inspiring, and an historic figure that would likely make a terrific president. But, changing the tone in Washington is not a reason to cast your vote on his behalf. The conservatives are still there—though largely discredited—serving their selfish movement rather than America. We ought to reward candidates who stand up to their evil agenda, rather than peg them as divisive and part of the problem.
While this may make great campaign rhetoric, Bill Clinton’s presidency is a cautionary tale. Nothing in Washington is going to “change” until the modern conservative movement is transformed or vanquished.
Wayne Besen, author of Bashing Back and Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, writes a weekly column published at www.waynebesen.com.