Wednesday, January 30, 2008
by Wayne Besen
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 the precise 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.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
by Wayne Besen
A few months ago, my organization TuthWinsOut.org
caused a national uproar
after we criticized Barack Obama for embracing "ex-gay" singer Donnie McClurkin. The Christian crooner was part of Obama's gospel tour of South Carolina, which was an attempt to lure African American voters away from the Clinton campaign.
Since then, Obama has shown himself to be a legitimate contender and, as a result, has secured much of the black vote in a state where they represent nearly half of all Democratic primary voters. At the same time, the rise of Obama has invigorated - and frightened - many gay voters, who write me each day to express confusion over what his candidacy represents.
Further complicating matters, was Obama's bold speech
on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in front of 2,500 people at Atlanta's renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church. Instead of pandering to the crowd, Obama used the opportunity to address homophobia in the African American community.
"For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man," Obama preached. "And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."
Unfortunately, as these words were leaving Obama's mouth, he was endorsed by the homophobic Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell
, who is senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church and a spiritual advisor to President George W. Bush.
The Obama campaign's speed dating with anti-gay demagogues, coupled with pro-gay statements, has had the effect of befuddling many GLBT voters. I hear from some people who think he is courageous for speaking up on behalf of gays at black churches, where other voters think he is a cynical political opportunist playing both sides of the fence. I believe each side has a legitimate point.
The most maddening - and absurd - spin comes from Obama supporters who claim that his flirtation with both gay advocates and anti-gay bigots is evidence that he can bring Americans together. Let's be clear, he has not brought anyone together. The only "cause" that such diverse constituencies have rallied round is Obama's political career. If he were to be elected, I hardly see this translating into any grand coalition to pass pro-gay legislation. Indeed, the homophobic African American leaders are only tolerating his gay-positive positions because their priority is electing America's first African American president.
There are also some politically naive GLBT people who say it does not matter who Obama's friends are. Of course, we all know that candidates owe elections to their supporters and thus hand out favors while in office. If Obama can put McClurkin on stage in the name of "unity" - then why can't he place the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on the backburner, also in the name of unity? If ENDA gets in the way of a coalition to tackle Social Security or healthcare, might the GLBT community be told to pipe it down and take one for the team? And, if we insist on equality in an Obama administration, will we be made to feel like troublemakers who are putting ourselves above the larger coalition? Such questions must be answered definitively, because if Obama secures the nomination or gets elected, his power increases exponentially, as access decreases at the same rate.
So, when people ask me what to do in regards to Obama, I make three points:
1) His association with arch-homophobes actually does matter and should play a factor in how you vote. It is fair to judge people by the company they keep, and we must admit that some of Obama's associates are troubling.
2) That said, Obama has been a solid supporter of GLBT rights and his overall record
should be under consideration. He should be given points for speaking in favor of equality at black churches.
3) All of the leading Democrats are pretty good on GLBT issues (marriage excluded), so they have essentially canceled each other out on this topic. Therefore, most gay people should make their decisions based on other concerns, like the war or the economy.
If Obama gets elected, either GLBT people or African American conservatives will be disappointed by the time his reelection bid rolls around. It is crucial that people realize that Obama's force of personality will not sustain this coalition, thus he must continue to announce his true intensions, so there is not great surprise and frustration after his inauguration.
Monday, January 14, 2008
by Wayne Besen
- The Cry Could Not Be Polled -(Weekly Column)
The most notable legacy of the New Hampshire primary will be the soiled reputations of leading pollsters and political consultants. For at least the past two decades we have worshiped at the altar of these glorified statisticians. Now the truth is out - these know-it-alls - don't know much more than we do.
The beauty of politics is its unpredictability - but the imprecise nature of this sport is often too much for some people to handle. Thus, at some point in time, the political establishment sought to turn this fine art into an exact science. An industry was created where people tried to figure out a secret formula for success. Unfortunately, all it has done has made politicians sound formulaic - and in the process turned off large swaths of the electorate.
Once the political consultants get involved, we often get milquetoast pabulum from the contenders that appeals to the lowest common denominator. The heart of the problem is that politics, like music, hits many emotional notes that can't be neatly figured out on a spreadsheet. What matters are the intangibles that ignite the imagination, and thus can't be so easily quantified.
So, it is no coincidence that Mike Huckabee - a man that until recently could not afford to take polls and had few political hacks on the payroll - was able to defeat Mitt Romney, who spent $10 million in Iowa. Unencumbered by canned talking points, Huckabee speaks from the heart and connects with the voters.
It was a blessing in disguise for him (not in the literal sense that Huckabee suggests) that he could not afford Washington consultants. They would have used focus groups to test every one of his jokes and the vast majority of his barbs would never have seen the light of day. He would have lost his groove and sounded like Romney with a southern accent - and would have likely been out of the race already as a result. Going with his instincts, he solidified his outsider status. We can only hope that his recent success and infusion of contributions will afford him the best Washington insiders money can buy.
Likewise, the pollsters in New Hampshire told us that Barack Obama was going to defeat Hillary Clinton by double digits. On the brink of defeat, however, Clinton showed her vulnerable side and voters rallied to her side. What the experts never expected was that going "off message" was the only message that would save her. When she briefly scrapped her staid talking points for spontaneous crying points, voters finally bonded with her. Clinton should consider firing her high-priced gurus and replacing them with on-sale bags of onions at the Price Club.
I'm not saying that politicians should get rid of all pollsters and political consultants. They are good at helping candidates understand the public's priorities. But, I am suggesting that the candidates can't be encouraged to ignore their gut feelings on the campaign trail. The public is hungry for honest politicians who don't need to check with three "experts" before they complete a sentence.
This lesson also pertains to the GLBT movement. There are some who rely too much on polling and focus groups to frame our message. They forget that focus groups only reinforce the status quo by letting us know where the public currently stands. The job of activists, however, is to move the conversation forward by telling people painful truths that they might not want to hear. When the GLBT community crafts messages on what people are already comfortable with, how does that advance the cause?
Somehow, the women's suffrage and civil right's movements managed to inspire and change the world without umpteen polls and focus groups. In fact, it seems the rhetoric was more inspiring back when every phrase wasn't poured over and parsed. Today's GLBT speeches often sound like a listless array of nothing sprinkled liberally with the word "equality." It appears the goal is not to screw up, rather than actually inspire.
The three most underrated ingredients in politics are heart, originality and intuition. To stay in business, consultants must convince insecure candidates or movements not to trust themselves and rely on the "hard data" -- which we have found in campaign 2008 is hardly reliable. If Iowa and New Hampshire taught us one thing it is that authenticity beats plasticity. While America may finally be ready to elect its first African American or woman President - the country seems in no mood to elect a robot. The candidate who comes across as least programmed is the one who will sit in the Oval Office.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
by Wayne Besen
Is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee a closeted stoner? This is the question that many people are asking, while the mainstream media has looked the other way.
Of course, what I am talking about has nothing to do with drugs, but is potentially more dangerous. Unfortunately, one needs a headline that includes drugs, sex or Britney Spears to get anyone to pay attention. Simply being a leading presidential candidate with ties to religious extremists that would stone homosexuals, adulterers and people who lie about their virginity is not newsworthy, I suppose.
It is scary to imagine, but the jovial Huckabee is linked to leaders of the Reconstructionist movement, which is so far to the right it makes Pat Robertson look like Ted Kennedy. The late RJ Rushdoony, a prolific writer that sought to replace the Constitution with the Old Testament, founded this school of religious thought. In essence, they want a Christian version of Iranian or Saudi Arabian sharia law in the United States. The Bible would govern every action, whether religious, personal or civil.
These fanatics believe that in order for Jesus to return, we have to create their view of the Kingdom of God on earth. I know this may be surprising, but their plan doesn't include gay people and Hillary Clinton would be in the kitchen fixing trail mix instead of mixing it up on the campaign trail.
Let's be clear, it is likely that Mike Huckabee does not share these nutty views. However, America has a right to know why he has cavorted with several extremists and why he scrubbed the record of his preaching days.
"On the campaign trail, it is the Lost Decade of his life. No one can find, or get access to, texts or video of his sermons," writes Howard Fineman in Newsweek Magazine
It seems that Huckabee has shed his prayer papers faster than he shed those much-ballyhooed pounds that first put him on the national radar. What is he hiding? Many of us fear the happy-go-lucky preacher is whitewashing a controversial past that includes views that would disqualify him in the minds of many people for higher office.
The first hint that Huckabee was on the fringe was during a Republican debate when he raised his hand
signaling that he did not believe in evolution. The next red flag appeared after a 1992 Associated Press questionnaire was found where Huckabee called for the quarantine
of AIDS patients and referred to homosexuality as "an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle" that could "pose a dangerous public health risk."
Next, the Cato Institute's blog
revealed that Huckabee held a fundraiser at the Houston home of Dr. Steven Hotze. As columnist Bob Novak notes, Hotze is "a leader in the highly conservative Christian Reconstruction movement." In 1986, Hotze signed onto a Coalition on Revival manifesto that said, "All theories and practices...are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible." This included the spheres of government, medicine and science.
Two weeks ago, I revealed that in 1998, Huckabee co-wrote the book, "Kids Who Kill"
with Reconstructionist author George Grant. In his 1987 book, "The Changing of the Guard," Grant says Christians have a mandate to take "dominion" over all aspects of life and to "bring the land into subjugation to his Lordship."
"But it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after," wrote Grant. "Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish."
There are also ties
to controversial evangelist Bill Gothard
, a strict preacher who believes Cabbage Patch Dolls were a threat to families, because the contract signed to own one was a form of idolatry.
It is critically important that the media ask Huckabee tough questions because he has based his entire campaign on being a "Christian Leader." He whizzed to victory in Iowa by galvanizing social conservatives on the phony issue of Christmas being under attack.
More worrisome, is that Huckabee is a gifted candidate - a political natural who has an outside shot for the White House. He is genuinely funny, likable and has become a media darling. But, who is he, really?
Huckabee presents himself as the fun loving fundamentalist who "isn't mad at anyone." This is good, because the more we learn about his shady friends, the less he seems like someone we'd want to anger. If we end up with a religious zealot as President and the cabinet stacked with kooks, the media can't say they did not have ample warning.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
by Wayne Besen
- Go get them gosh darn varmints Mitt - (left)
The presidential marathon has now become a sprint. With the coming of the New Year Americans are now sizing up the candidates. The Democrats are generally excited about their choices, however, the uncertainly of having no clear frontrunner has caused a great deal of unease.
Meanwhile, the Republican crop of candidates is downright depressing. It is so bad, it could even drive someone like the ever-happy Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, to the nearest high ledge with a bottle of prescription drugs. The GOP race is so screwed up, that Rev. Pat Robertson endorsed the guy (Giuliani) who is pro-choice and pro-gay. Well, pro-gay for a Republican, which is entirely different than actually being affirming and supportive.
Watching the debates, it almost seemed as if the Republicans and Democrats come from two different worlds. The Democrats talked about healthcare, thought the war in Iraq wasn't going so well and generally were accepting of gay and lesbian equality. Even if they were on the wrong side of marriage, which is no small deal, at least they understood the issue.
The immigration and religion obsessed Republicans were just plain pathetic - particularly on gay rights. Giuliani and Romney, formerly moderate on GLBT issues, couldn't backpedal fast enough. The former mayor of New York generally tried to avoid the issue with the message - I'm a wee bit gay positive, but, please realize I'm ashamed of my record, but too stubborn to say I was actually wrong about "those people".
The protean former governor of Massachusetts simply morphed into an unrecognizable creature. This new creation was an anti-gay, varmint blasting, anti-choice moralist that sounded as if he were from northern Alabama, instead of the most liberal state in the nation.
Really, has there ever been a phonier, flip-flopping panderer in the history of politics than "Full of Mitt" Romney? He is so plastic that I bet he has "Mattel" tattooed on his behind. If Romney became president, it would be like watching a four-year video loop of the movie I-Robot, minus the action scenes. How anyone could actually pull the lever for someone so utterly devoid of character, conscience and consistency is a mystery.
Of course, there is Mike "Huckster-Bible," who presents himself as a fresh, new face, while basing his policies on the Old Testament. It seems that each week, he regresses a century. In fact, when he shouted Happy New Year, he was ringing in 1408. Our only hope is that his time warp is irreversible and he becomes so backwards that he enters a B.C. mindset and thus must give up Christianity and adopt the ancient God Ba'al.
If Huckster-Bible actually gets the nomination, I suspect the entire GOP establishment will blow up - with mass defections of Wall Street Republicans. While, the former Arkansas governor is a rare talent on the campaign trail - I can't imagine the GOP business elite funding a man who might just start calling the Iraqis "Babylonians" at any moment. Seriously, would anyone be shocked if expediting the Rapture became a foreign policy goal under a Huckster-Bible administration?
Sure, the Democrats may sometimes fail to deliver - but the national Republican Party never fails to deliver anti-gay policies and fear driven politics that divide America and set back GLBT equality. The only road to redemption for the GOP is to start from scratch and form a new party where bigots and religious fanatics are not considered a core constituency.
As for the Democrats, the main question is whether the candidate chosen in the primaries will reach his or her leadership potential?
Would Obama be a revolutionary president that heals divisions and restores credibility to America? Or, he would be a rhetorically gifted Jimmy Carter - inexperienced in foreign policy and too weak to reach his full potential?
Would Hillary Clinton return to her idealistic youth and create real and lasting change? Or, was she so mentally scarred by her healthcare defeat and her husband's gays in the military debacle - that she is now cautious to the point of irrelevance?
Would John Edwards really take on fat cat CEO's and fight for the little guy - or simply take their votes for granted on the way to the White House?
The good news is that I think a Democrat is likely to win. The bad news is that if we get a Republican, the dollar has become so weak under Bush that few of us can afford to leave. If being trapped in Huckster-Bible Land is not an incentive to get off the couch and vote - I'm not sure what is.