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 from 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 y’all! 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 he was 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 others. (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 others who are working hard to advance progressive issues.