Friday, April 02, 2004

This piece appeared in a shorter but much less amusing form in the Washington Blade.

Keepin’ It All Together

President Clinton Talks to Yours Truly
at the Democrats United Dinner

WASHINGTON, DC--It was billed as the most successful fundraising event ever staged by the Democrats, with a reported take of $11 million. Indeed, the Democrats United Dinner, staged last Thursday at the National Building Museum, was a sight to behold, bringing together not just disparate elements of the Democratic Party, but of grand-scale events, as well--a little bit circus, a tad awards show and, of course, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Part picnic, part gala, guests paid $1,000 a piece to chaw on barbecue served on plasticware in the museum’s elegant atrium, surrounded by columns of all three orders of classical architecture.

Readers who know the museum may recall that at the ground level, arches supported by Doric columns grace the perimeter, while up one level on the mezzanine, the Ionics hold sway in a design produced to set off the massive, ornate Corinthians rooted on the ground floor that reach to the sky, said to be the largest columns of their kind in the world.

It all contrived to convey the idea of unity embracing diversity, e pluribus unum and all that. “We are so unified,” said emcee Ann Richards, the former Texas governor, “that before their wives got wind of it, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton were on their way to San Francisco for a marriage license.” True to form, Richards, all wise cracks and cotton-candy hair, once again proved herself to be a character who, had she not existed, would have to be invented by a playwright with a queer eye, or perhaps Tracy Ullman.

The also-rans

Earlier in the evening, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and New York’s Reverend Al Sharpton joined the other also-rans on the junior stage at one side of the room, providing the entertainment during the cocktail hour, at which each were given two minutes to express their unifying vision. But for Sharpton and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the remarks were unremarkable--what we could hear of them, at least.

We are sad to report, dear reader, that as the representative of the Washington Blade, we did not rate as Doric material, and found ourself relegated to the Ionic level with the cables, wires and mult boxes of the broadcast tech crews, while the Dorics--the daily papers and the newsweeklies--toiled in a filing center that featured such modern conveniences as electrical outlets, a television set and a pile of soggy sandwiches.

Two other print reporters from publications far more obscure than ours, I assure you, joined us in the mezzaninic hinterlands, where the amplified sound bounced so hard off the crowns of the Corinthians that the speeches were rendered almost unintelligible. We did, however, glean some tasty bits.

After excoriating President Bush for his jokes about weapons of mass destruction the previous night at the Television and Radio Correspondents Dinner, Sharpton stoked up the crowd on the topic of gay issues and the 2004 election.

“We must not allow [the Republicans] to change the debate,” said the rev. “They want to argue personal morality rather than social justice. I’ve said before, and I say again,” he continued, “the issue is not who you go to sleep with at night; the issue is whether the two of you have a job when you wake up the next morning.”

The crowd roared in appreciation.

It's a mike, not a sausage!

Dean exacerbated the Ionic sound dilemma by characteristically getting a little too close to the mike, so we are unable, unfortunately, to offer much of a direct quote from his speech. We did, however, note that he implored the crowd to study the moves of perhaps the “best political organizer in this country” in modern times, “a gentleman from Georgia named Ralph Reed.”

You’ll remember Reed, we’re sure, as the political shark with the choirboy face who made the Christian Coalition a force to be feared in the 1990s. If you don’t remember him, you’ll no doubt have an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with him this political season, in his now secular role as a campaign strategist.

We made a stinkeroo about the sound situation and were granted the keys to the Doric kingdom. Sweeping down the staircase to journalistic legitimacy, we nearly tripped over Howard Dean as he tried to sneak out, so we stopped him by dropping all of our tapes and notebooks around his feet while simultaneously noting our fascination with his Ralph Reed comment. Would he care to riff on that?

“Yeah,” said Dean, “Ralph Reed’s been the most effective political organizer of the last 30 years, and we’re gonna have to beat him at his own game--which means getting people to get out there and run for school boards and for county commissioners and their local city councils, and get ordinary, thoughtful Americans back in control of this country.”

Before Reed’s side took over the country, we reminded the governor, the technique he was articulating was the means by which Reed’s evangelicals took over the Republican Party. We noted that earlier this month, Dean used the foundation laid by his presidential campaign to form a new grass-roots organization, Democracy for America. Did the governor, we wanted to know, wish to take over the Democratic Party?

“Well, I want to take over the country,” he replied, “not for me, but for ordinary people.”

Dean’s night

Though the Democratic Party had come together to join hands around John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and apparent presidential nominee, the gala was, in many ways, Dean’s night, insurgency being his specialty.

Nary a speaker took the podium at the main event without mentioning Dean, and several even thanked him for injecting the party with some testicular fortitude (though in not so many words). And every time his name was invoked, a huge cheer came up from the crowd, leading one to wonder if, had D.C.’s early primary actually counted, the Dems might have had a nominee who had signed a civil unions statute into law.

Al Gore gave Kerry a largely unnoted back-handed compliment by calling the audience’s attention to the fact that Al Gore had not backed Kerry in the primary (he endorsed Dean), and then went onto list a number of party notables who had not endorsed Kerry--all this to say that Kerry had earned the nomination on his own.

President Jimmy Carter, in a rare partisan political appearance, thanked “the courageous Howard Dean for drawing a sharp distinction--when it wasn’t really the thing to do,” before going on to chide Ralph Nader for costing the Democrats the 2000 election and making an eloquent case against the turn away from human rights and multilateralism made by the current administration.

Little star, big star

It may have been Dean’s night, but the star was clearly President Bill Clinton, who delivered, in a mesmerizing performance, remarks that were by turns uplifting and barbed. Some sage years ago dubbed the Democrats “the mommy party”--concerned about the well-being of ordinary citizens and other nelly things--while the Republicans were “the daddy party,” made of sterner stuff.

“They’re the daddy party,” Clinton gibed, after deriding the Bush tax cuts. “They remind me of teenagers who got their inheritance too soon and now can’t wait to blow it.”

Not widely picked up were Clinton’s remarks about the 2000 South Carolina Republican Primary, in which the aforementioned Ralph Reed played a pivotal role on behalf of the Bush campaign.

“One of the things that turned the tide [in that primary],” Clinton asserted, “was that the president’s phone-banking operation called all the white South Carolina Republicans and said, ‘Don’t you forget that John McCain’s got a black baby before you go in and vote’--because he had adopted a child, God bless him, from Bangladesh.”

Clinton vindicated Howard Dean, saying, “[W]hen this primary started, Howard Dean was the first person who legitimized it for all of us to say, ‘We don’t like what’s goin’ on here, we don’t like what’s goin’ on here.’"

The crowd rose, cheering.

"And as you can see," Clinton said, unruffled, "we’re still grateful for it.”

It took the crowd a minute or so to simmer down after what must have been a deeply satisfying moment for the former governor, since the Democrats’ “stop Dean” movement was said to have been launched by the Clintons.

Marriage ban?

Neither Gore nor Carter nor Clinton mentioned gay marriage, the proposed constitutional amendment to ban it endorsed by President Bush--or any queer-specific issues, for that matter. John Kerry, who had the misfortune of following Clinton’s sermon, gave the topic an oblique reference.

“George Bush, who has promised to be a uniter, has become the great divider,” Kerry intoned. “He has proposed to amend the [U.S.] Constitution for political purposes. He has no right to misuse the most precious document in our history in an effort to divide this nation and distract us from his failures.”

The senator failed to note his own support for amending the Massachusetts constitution, a document with an apparent preciousness deficit, to prohibit gay marriage, recently rendered into law by the commonwealth’s Supreme Court. It’s a surprising turn for a senator who, deeming the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) an act of gay-bashing, stood courageously among a handful who refused to sign it.

It’s not right

Speaking of DOMA, we did manage to catch up with Bill Clinton, the president who signed it into law. Catching up with Bill proved something of an athletic pursuit, plowing through the crowd of fans who sought to paw him, and foisting a tape recorder above the heads of the beefy Secret Service agents who had formed a human chain around him.

Just as an agent put his hand up to us, grunting, “No interviews,” the former president responded to our shouted eloquence, “Will the Republicans be able to use the gay stuff to take down the Democrats?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “Kerry just needs to be really strong and straightforward about it.”

Would that we had been in a better position to ask him to explain what he meant by strong and straightforward.

“[W]hen I signed the Defense of Marriage Act, all it did was to say it’s still a question of state law...,” Clinton continued. “That’s the way America’s always been. And I think it’s a mistake to get into this constitutional amendment business. I don’t think it’s right.”

We thanked him, and he leaned forward to offer one more bit of advice: “I think the Democrats just need to keep looking for issues that bring us together.”

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