With his term coming to a close, President Clinton talks candidly in an exclusive interview about his battles, successes, and future hopes for gay and lesbian rights
The president's cabin on Air Force One is a small white room dominated by a large wooden desk, an appropriately somber environment for President Clinton to work in en route to his latest event. But when Julian Potter, the White House liaison to gays and lesbians, ushers me into the cabin to interview Clinton for The Advocate, the leader of the free world is waving an unlit cigar and humming along to the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" issuing from his portable CD player. Gesturing to discs spread across his writing blotter--including Barbra Streisand's Timeless--a clearly upbeat Clinton recounts the thriving Washington, D.C., jazz scene he enjoyed while an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in the late 1960s and his enthusiasm for Richie Havens, who also recorded the George Harrison tune.
Clinton has a lot to be cheerful about these days. His job approval rating hovers around 60%, and his wife, Hillary, holds a distinct advantage in her race for the U.S. Senate seat from New York, in part because of the president's tireless fund-raising efforts. Clinton's chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore, has gone from being considered a sure loser to running neck and neck with Republican nominee George W. Bush. The Democrats even have an outside chance of recapturing both the House and the Senate.
When he finally switches off the Fab Four and settles into his leather armchair for the exclusive interview--his first ever with a gay publication, apart from a written interview in this magazine in 1996--the loquacious Clinton launches into a half-hour monologue on gay rights. Only occasionally does he allow my questions to punctuate his riff. When we run out of time as the plane lands in Dallas, Clinton holds up his motorcade to answer a few last questions on the tarmac.
In many ways it is a fitting time for the conversation. Just hours earlier at a Rose Garden press conference, Clinton reiterated his case for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (since renamed the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act), a potent issue with which to press his attacks on the GOP. We are headed to Dallas, the heart of GOP country, where I follow him to a fund-raiser sponsored by the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council. It is held at the tony home of Charles Marlett, corporate secretary of American Airlines, and his partner, Jim Vasilis, a criminal defense lawyer. The event brings in $250,000. There Clinton receives thunderous applause from the well-heeled attendees, who repeatedly toast what they see as his accomplishments. He has appointed dozens of gays and lesbians to high-level federal posts, including James Hormel as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. Even more significant, Clinton issued an executive order banning antigay discrimination in federal employment and removed the obstacles to gay officials' receiving security clearances.
"The best parallel might be [Franklin] Roosevelt and African-American rights," says David J. Garrow, presidential distinguished professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. "The Roosevelts did convey a message that black Americans were more a welcome part of the citizenry, even if President Roosevelt lacked specific legislative victories. Like Clinton with gays, Roosevelt issued an executive order banning race discrimination in the federal government. Roosevelt changed the tone of the race debate, which led to more concrete victories later on. I expect the same phenomenon may be at work in this case."
As his administration winds down, Clinton is eager to secure his place in history as a gay rights pioneer. After nearly eight years handling gay and AIDS-related issues, he's clearly fluent with their political intricacies and surprisingly open about his problems in dealing with some of them, particularly the military's ban on gay service members. …