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Don Davis

Lawrence O'Donnell, Let's Talk About DADT

Filed By Don Davis | April 04, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, civil rights, Congress, DOMA, Don't Ask Don't Tell, ENDA, Law, Lawrence O'Donnell, LBGT, LGBT civil rights, SNDA, The Last Word, White House

I had MSNBC on last Thursday night, and Lawrence O'Donnell was talking to Ari Berman5554630230_327595d630.jpg of The Nation about the new Obama Campaign Chief of Staff, Jim "Not Part Of Loggins &" Messina.

In the course of that conversation O'Donnell said something about the recent repeal of DADT that suggests to me that he could use a short reminder of how that legislation fits into the larger view of what the LBGT community is looking for as the march toward true civil rights continues.

Luckily for Mr. O'Donnell, I am available to help him out on this one; that's why today we're going to audit "LBGT Agenda 101" - or at least the "Cliff's Notes" version, anyway.

"In name we had the Declaration of Independence in 1776; but we gave the lie by our acts to the words of the Declaration of Independence until 1865; and words count for nothing except in so far as they represent acts. This is true everywhere; but, O my friends, it should be truest of all in political life. A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics..."

--From Theodore Roosevelt's "The New Nationalism" speech, Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910

So the first thing we better do so all this can make sense is to give you a bit of transcript to read, and the context into which it fits. I'm going to highlight what is particularly important to this discussion.

O'Donnell and Berman were, as we note above, talking about Jim Messina (Berman has an article up at The Nation entitled "Jim Messina Is Alienating Obama's Base"), and Berman was explaining that folks on the left have concerns about Messina because of his history working for Rahm Emanuel as Obama's Deputy Chief of Staff, and as Chief of Staff for Max Baucus (who is today one of the most "corporate" elected officials working at Senate, Inc.).

This includes the LBGT community, who have already had trouble with Messina; some feel he tried as hard as possible to bury the DADT repeal issue on the theory that there's no need to fight needless fights when the LBGT community ain't gonna be voting Republican anytime soon anyway.

Now here's the part of the transcript that we care about; Berman is first:

...And that`s all we can do, is look at what has he done. And in his time at the White House, in his time working for Baucus, he`s clashed with Democratic activists, with grassroots organizers over and over and over again. And that`s a pattern through his career that I found in this article.

O`DONNELL: On Don`t Ask, Don`t Tell, you have complaints about how long it took and -- but they succeeded.

BERMAN: Absolutely.

O`DONNELL: So when you succeed -- in my experience, working in the Senate, there`s all sorts of tensions and negativity within the party as you`re moving toward a goal. And then when you succeed everybody forgets it. They go hey, we did it.

So, Lawrence, let me explain what you got wrong here:

Most of the time, when you succeed in the Senate, you're pursuing a single legislative item, and success is a good thing indeed.

But DADT repeal can't be considered in a vacuum, and it is only one of four legislative "fronts" on which the battle for full civil rights has been joined.

I write a lot about Social Security, and legally married same-sex couples can't collect those benefits the same way opposite-sex married couples do; the same is true with Medicare, and forget about "Married - Filing Jointly" at tax time.

All of that is because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and its repeal is the second metaphorical "front" in our civil rights battle.

The law could be overturned in the courts, but a lot of folks assume that the issue will rise to the Supremes and they'll "find" a reason to uphold DOMA.

That means Congress might the only place to get something done (and a lot of the same folks think Messina slow-walked the issue in '09, which might have been the best chance the Democrats had to move this along). Now that the '12 Presidential is coming up - and DADT repeal was handled the way it was - it's presumed that Messina is going to be even less help than ever before.

If you're gay and you're looking for a job, everyone from Cracker Barrel to Exxon/Mobil seems to look down on you, on one level or another (and if you're perceived to be a transgender person, it can be even worse).

After you get the job, if your boss thinks you're part of the LBGT community, it might get you fired with no real legal recourse, but if Congress were to pass an ENDA, some of this might get better - and once again that makes last year's battle over DADT relevant.

The fourth battle is the same issue in a different venue; just last month Minnesota's Al Franken and Colorado's Jared Polis introduced Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) bills in the Senate and House, respectively, designed to protect LBGT elementary and secondary students from harassment at the schoolhouse.

That's the short and the sweet of the thing, Lawrence, and that's why the means by which DADT repeal was enacted is not going to make anyone forget much of anything.

After all, the guy who helped make life tough for those trying to get DADT repeal passed is now the Official Presidential Campaign Gatekeeper, and if the history of DADT repeal is any guide there isn't gonna be a lot of Presidential help with the other three parts of this legislative agenda. Unless, of course, the Administration needs to turn on the gAyTM for some reason.

Here's one last example of how all this DADT repeal "process" matters.

You may recall this open letter from the Obama '08 Campaign, where Obama said:

"...as President, I will place the weight of my administration behind the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act to outlaw hate crimes and pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act to outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws."

Now, knowing what we do about how DADT repeal passed, do you, Mr. O'Donnell, think it is more or less likely that the president will use the bully pulpit to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act - and do you see why the way one piece of legislation "Hail Mary's" its way into law might impact the way a whole community feels about the rest of its legislative goals?

And for the LBGT community, this isn't just "ordinary" legislation.

This is about the right to have a place to live, and a job, and the right to marry, and the right to have a marriage recognized everywhere, just like anyone else's, and not getting separated from your partner of 20 years just because the county says so - and it's also about how a community is sick and tired of hearing that "if you help us today... in a few more years you won't have to be a second-class citizen any more."

I really do like your work much of time, Mr. O'Donnell, but you really did whiff this one by concentrating entirely on the one thing and missing the larger picture - but hey, none of us are perfect, and hopefully this'll be a useful object lesson for the next time.

Now get out of here and make some TV, ya crazy nut.


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O'Donnell just doesn't get it, but then that's always been true of MSNBC as a whole. Unless you've got handsome patriotic media-friendly rock stars like Dan Choi and Victor Ferenbach to stump for your issue, these people don't give a shit whether you live or die. The simple truth is that most of us don't neatly fit into MSNBC's most lucrative viewer demographics and so you'll probably never see any coverage of ENDA or any other LGBT issue.

As far as I know, ENDA has never even been mentioned, much less covered, by any of MSNBC's hosts. Rachel Maddow actually erased transpeople completely from a short segment on the passage of the hate crimes bill last year, and got such flack for it that shortly thereafter she covered Amanda Simpson's appointment to the Commerce Dept. by Obama. That was the first and only time a transgender-relevant story has ever been covered on her show. She also had to reminded once on-air by Melissa Harris-Perry to include transpeople in another relevant story.

LGBT's can't count on MSNBC to cover us fairly or even at all unless there's some kind of drama involved, like Choi's coming out on Maddow. We just don't represent enough cold hard cash for these multi-millionaire "progressives" to bother even attempting to do coverage that might actually be worth of the term "progressive". They're totally clueless, willfully so, and they like it that way.

i was going to reflexively say "of course rachel has covered enda", and i was going to provide some handy links to make the point...but after about 15 minutes of trying to find such a link...i just gave up.

so i guess the question is: how do you "flip the switch" on this?

maybe the answer is something like a reality show.

now i'm not talking "drag race" here; instead, i was thinking about something that follows the ordinary lives of folks who are just trying to get by in what is often a pointlessly hostile world.

it may be that the best way around all of this is to create characters that the public can relate to, and to make those characters directly accessible to the public (think youtube series here...).

and to put it even more bluntly, if i were trying to sell this idea to a funder i'd be selling it not as a donation...but as a possible capital investment that could bring a nice profit if it becomes a hit.

watch this video, and you can get an idea of the "look and feel" of what such a show might look like (the video is a police show, but that's irrelevant; concentrate instead on the look and feel).

so what's the point here?

it may be that the only way to get non-glamorous, "everyday life" lbgt stories out to the larger public is to do it "around" the news media, and to do it through sympathetic "next door neighbors" and their fairly ordinary (and entirely unique) problems.

for that matter, it could even be a scripted show that presents these issues in story form.

maybe the only way to make america "transhappy" is to meet the construction worker who puts on a tool belt every day, or the nurse who works a graveyard shift...or the firefighter and her wife who can't find a place to live because every apartment seems to be "already rented".

There is no way to flip the switch on ENDA. Corporate media just plain doesn't care about unemployed people.

Why should it? They don't own NBC shares, they don't buy advertising on NBC's channels, and they aren't a wealthy demographic to advertise to.

Johnny K. | April 4, 2011 7:36 PM

O'Donnell is more clueless than most. I seem him as clinging to relevance he might have had years ago, back when he was actually "in the loop" on things.

i do want to make one point that might mitigate some of what's up with the msnbc hosts: these folks are at the end of years of budget whackings, and they're cut down pretty deep.

here's what i mean: if something happens anywhere from morocco to bhutan, richard engle is the guy.

and that can work, up to a point...but when egypt blew up, they had to send in brian williams and i forget who else because it became impossible to do 16 "stand-ups" a day and try to go outside and report.

al jazeera, on the other hand, had a ton of people in studio and on the street, all arabic speakers.

the upshot of all that: nbc/msnbc spends a fair amount of their day copying each other's stories (although that's far less true with rachel, who does "bring the new" every night...), and there's a huge reliance on the same 20 or so "talking heads" debating each issue to death...and there's a lack of research staff and bodies on the hill talking to people like who o'donnell used to be that could keep o'donnell in the loop today.

He's a pompous ass. I enjoyed it when he filled in for Olbermann occasionally but since he's earned his own show, he's not made me want to do anything but change the channel. But, hey, at least he's not as bad as the dweeb from the Young Turks!

what's going to be very interesting is how the competition between o'donnell and olbermann stacks up.

my suspicion is that current is going to get bigger, but a lot of that is distribution, isn't it?

um... Until DADT is 'certified' and is deader than the Dodo its not repealed. Its not a 'done deal' at all and with every Republican stating that one of the first things they'll do is put either DADT or something like it in its place, along with the a list of issues surrounding DADT (no expanded EEO or workplace harassment policy's and a total lack of support for those GLB service members who are legally married) then its just more window dressing.

I'm really starting to think that its nothing more than a mental masturbation exercise.

there's actually good progress to be noted, and my own prediction that this could take a year is starting to look like it could be wrong.

cnn is reporting that things could be finalized by midsummer.

That is true but remember we heard from multiple sources that Messina and other supposed allies like Winnie Stachelberg wanted to put this off until 2011. We were just very lucky that the House said no way and pushed for us. Otherwise this would have never happened. It's sad when a member of our own community will push us under the bus for politicial purposes. Messina is just that man.

to tell you the truth, i thought the administration would put this off until 2013, and only then if they had a congress that looked like the 111th.

i also have the impression that the administration didn't push this in 2010; instead, it seems like it was the congress that got this one done.

so...let's talk about communities and buses:

liberals have forever felt thrown under entire transit systems by presidents and the democratic party alike, and today obama is really feeling that heat; the 2010 election results seem to reflect that as well.

there would probably not be a tea party today if hyper-conservatives hadn't felt the same way about dubya and the congresses from that period. (of course, if obama was a white guy named "barry robinson" there might not be a tea party either...but we'll leave that for another day.)

the big picture here?

winning elections often trumps community ties, and apparently the lbgt community can now look around and feel just a bit more equal, having been thrown under the bus just like everyone else.