Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Dan Choi's Reid Protest Went Awry

Here's what actually happened on Saturday at Netroots: Ousted openly gay Army Lt. Dan Choi had moderator Joan McCarter give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid his West Point ring, his discharge papers and two letters that Reid had written vowing to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell by the end of 2009.

It was meant, Choi told me before it happened, to embarrass Reid, to expose the Nevada Democrat to the liberal crowd as having failed to fulfill his promise. Choi received his discharge papers on Thursday, a year after he came out on The Rachel Maddow Show in defiance of DADT.

And yet, here is how what happened between Choi and Reid was reported by CBS News:

Before Reid began to answer questions from the conference audience today, the discussion moderator handed him Choi's West Point ring as a gift. Reid expressed his gratitude but said he could not accept the gift.

"He earned his ring," Reid said. "I'm going to give it back to him."

Choi joined Reid on stage and gave the majority leader a hug. Audience members shouted at Reid to keep the ring until "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed.

"When the bill's signed, I'll keep it safely and then give it back to him," he said.

And by Talking Points Memo:

Choi, discharged this week under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, hopped onto the stage during Reid's Netroots Nation speech and gave Reid his discharge paperwork. The two agreed that Reid would hang onto the ring until the repeal is passed and the new law of the land. Choi also gave Reid letters containing the original promise the Clinton-era policy would be repealed in 2009.

And the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Choi jumped onstage to give Reid a hug and his West Point class ring. Reid said he would return it after Obama signs away "don't ask, don't tell."

And on and on it went across the media.

So how did an effort to embarrass Reid turn into something of an emotional triumph for him? Let's go to the videotape:

As you can see, both the R-J and TPM had factual mistakes, TPM being the oddest because they provided this YouTube (that's where I got found it!) and showed their own readers that Choi never gave Reid the ring or papers at all.

But McCarter got choked up and didn't make a point of the fact that the letters she was handing him included not just the discharge papers but also those from Reid to Choi that contained broken promises. And Reid also misunderstood the point of his receiving the ring -- he became emotional about it because he thought it was a gift, a symbolic gesture to embolden Reid to get the DADT job done. It was actually supposed to be the equivalent of a divorcee giving her wedding ring back to her husband, see.

Yet when Reid went all I'm-not-worthy and tried to give it back to Choi, there was so much noise and clatter (not heard quite as well on the video) that there was no way to successfully clarify for Reid that he had actually been dissed, not honored. McCarter made no effort to fix the confusion, either. And then Reid announces that, OK, he'll keep it until he could return it after DADT ends, and the audience erupted in admiration and emotion.

There was nothing left for Choi to do at that point but to hop on stage, embrace Reid's gesture and hope it would actually mean something. But make no mistake he's still pissed, telling me for AOL News afterward: "I find it very difficult to understand any kind of senator or leader who would make a promise to the LGBT community and, because of whatever fears are latent inside of this person running for re-election or unable to show the leadership to manifest the American promise, we're still getting fired."

Why does this matter? Well, earlier this week on my Facebook page, debate ensued over whether the stopping-traffic-on-the-Strip stunt that Choi and his friends at GetEQUAL executed on Tuesday was an effective or appropriate form of protest. It caused mayhem for motorists on a very hot day and could easily have turned many of them against the cause in the process.

Except you know what? The message was loud and clear. It was unambiguous, the media reported it exactly as it was intended and it provided striking visuals. Mission accomplished.

Choi's protest at Netroots on Saturday? Not so much. It was nuanced and complex, it was so easily misinterpreted that even the person Choi wanted to embarrass didn't get it. And in the end, the media got this warm moment of Reid and Choi embracing, and the idea of boiling into a soundbite everything I've written here was absolutely impossible. Mission failed.

There is another example of protesters being too clever by half at the same session Saturday. Four Hispanic activists donned black graduation caps and gowns and stood in the front row as Reid answered questions about immigration reform, which he has also not managed to advance in any meaningful way. The students wanted to call Reid's attention to support for the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship or permanent residency for undocumented students who came to the US as minors, graduated high school and have lived here for 5 years.

I have yet to read a mainstream media account other than my own about that protest. It was just too subtle. Reid didn't even react to it -- it's possible he didn't even notice -- and the press found it far to confusing to summarize even if they understood it at all.

What would have worked? Well -- and I'm not recommending these, just making an observation here -- some really raucous shouting. Someone rushing the stage. Something dramatic and visual and unambiguous. All of that would have gotten the point onto the evening news loud and clear. And, yeah, it would have pissed off a lot of people at the event.

But in a way, Saturday was a useful lesson in the art of protest. These didn't work. At first I blamed the media, but when I realized I was about the only one in the MSM who got it right, it dawned on me that it wasn't my colleagues' faults. Had I not been forewarned by sources of what was about to take place and why, I probably would have interpreted it very similarly.

Choi-Reid photo credit: Queerty.Com


George Bakan / SGN said...

Reid is shrewd - and he knew very well he better take control and they way to do it - whatever was the goal - was to be the gracious, paternal good guy.

He talks of his son, implying Dan is like a son. He is respectful, mannerly, a bit emotional.... even very human/family/commonality.

I thin the event worked for all. Reid has publicly committed in a big way to the in-your-face agitator. What could be better? Choi has the lead on the issue, still, and still THE player, not cowering in a corner depressed about his discharge. Strong, talented guy, indeed, shows how much the Army lost by booting him.

Choi may be enjoying the bad ass thing a bit to much. The left has over play bad ass for years. Reid it very, very powerful and will be re-elected. He is also a respected conservative in the West - USA, how can this be bad for us?

I think the repeal of DADT is coming - I bet very inside sources in the Pentagon would confirm if they could.

Love Dan and his activist push - another coup. Even if the script got confused - it is another milestone for his activism.... and his message is that individual activism and commitment works, another positive to the next generation.

G. Bakan, Seattle Gay News

CW said...

We are still not hearing the full story. Reid was obviously tipped off by someone. How did his staff know that Choi would confront him? That is why Reid began his remarks by mentioning Choi immediately - to provide cover for any criticism to come. It was a very cynical ploy on Reid's part - and the unemotional tone of his voice betrayed his agenda. It was only after I read Choi's letter, did I realize the real story. Reid had broken a promise he made to repeal DADT in 2009. It's fascinating how the media always tends to get it wrong - and always in favor of the homophobes.

atdnext said...

You know what? Sometimes that saying rings so true, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In this instance, it's easy to just see a number of subjective interpretations. Was it good for Reid? Was it bad for Choi? Was it good for GetEQUAL? Was it bad for Netroots Nation?

Even Lt. Choi himself seemed to deliver a different message when interviewed by The Sun's Delen Goldberg:

Or maybe not. Perhaps Goldberg just interpreted Choi's message differently, or perhaps Choi left it open to different interpretations.

Whatever the case, what happened yesterday got people to look beyond their preconceived notions about Harry Reid, Dan Choi, and the netroots. And for this progressive gay blogger with a soft spot for Reid, I'll take it.

And btw, it was nice to FINALLY meet you in person! I hope you understand why I had to miss the live petcast taping yesterday. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Reid did not misunderstand the whole ring thing. Reid had been tipped off by someone and knew exactly what was about to go down. That is why he hurriedly mentioned Dan Choi within seconds of coming on stage. Reid is a very skilled politician and semi-successfully flip-flopped the whole event. The media are idiots as usual.

Jeff in OKC said...

Are you posters just not understanding political reality? If Reid disappoints you, what is your alternative, Sharron Angle? She thinks you are supposed to burn in Hell, or somesuch hooey. The majority of the voting public is far more conservative than you are. The only single issue voters on gay rights are-gay people! Nowhere near the majority. Same with the Hispanic group.
Reid and Pelosi are the best friends you have and may be the best friends you are gonna get anytime soon, since I don't seem to see any people running for office as Liberals, nowadays. All I see are ads for people claiming to be "true Conservatives".
Harry Reid can't do a damn thing for you if he doesn't get elected (To borrow a sentence from Ronald Regan).

Anonymous said...

Any staffer worth his salary and position will have conducted enough advance work to have briefed the Senator on what was to happen at this and every event.

It's unclear why, when this happens, it comes as either a surprise or as fodder for come kind of conspiracy.

This is how it happens every day in politics. Those of us who have been in that position perform that work every day as the elected official is briefed prior to each scheduled public event.

I am not entirely convinced Reid knew this would happen. Reid did not appear to address him directly until the moderator pointed him out. But why does it matter?

Even if it had been a 'surprise' I'm not sure how one could have gotten a better response.

Reid renewed his promise to fulfill DADT repeal.

It is a puzzlement why some in the GLBT activist community think attacking only your friends is the right strategy. I understand there is frustration over the perception the Democratic Party has been timid on GLBT issues. And I support holding their feet to the fire, particularly the President and his staff, where I believe leadership has been seriously lacking.

Worse, David Mixner's comments about how Rahm Emanuel has transported the failed lessons from the 1992 Clinton Administration to the 2010 Obama Administration reveal the real problem. This is the real reason our issues have been shoved into a freezer. The West Wing sets and propels a legislative agenda.

It is my view the liberal community should be demanding that Obama shake up his staff. Their extremely poor communication, timidity and miserable tactical judgment have been disastrous. I would argue that Obama's staff has not only robbed him of credit for any successes he could claim, but doing so has sabotaged Obama's very ability to govern because he appears weak and ineffective on many levels.

Example: no press conferences in a year (!) from an Administration that could not stop talking when it took office. They over-reacted to initial over-exposure and in so doing have silenced themselves. Speaking thru Gibbs only? Ridiculous. The public wants to see a Commander in Chief in charge and giving orders. It makes it look like they do not know how to govern.

So even the successes have been huge disappointments to his base even as he wastes capital seeking to mollify Republicans who will never be mollified.

So hold our allies' feet to the fire, yes. But also focus on our opponents and those who might be persuadable to change or neutralize their opposition. Go to the lion's den. Show them what a gay soldier looks like.


Jeff: I would argue you're underselling the Hispanic electoral power. As a politician or a political party, I'd be far more nervous about pissing that bloc off given how fast they're growing. We are within years of this nation becoming a majority-minority nation.

AndrewW said...

This was moving and I think Choi deserves credit for being persistent. But, there is a problem. This is being widely reported as "Reid Promises to Repeal DADT." He never did. Not in his letters to Gates or the President or during this exchange with Choi.

This is important because Choi and GetEQUAL continue to suggest they are "holding politicians accountable" with their stunts. Reid, Pelosi and others have said repeatedly they "support" the real of DADT and DOMA and the passage of ENDA. In those numerous statements there is no "promise."

Reid and Pelosi have a problem - there are not enough votes in the US Senate to pass anything LGBT-related. That is OUR fault, not theirs. We need to change enough minds to get enough votes in the Senate.

GetEQUAL's attacks on our friends based on the misrepresentations that they have "promised" something, is counterproductive. Even the attacks on Obama are misplaced. He didn't promise to repeal DADT, he "promised to work with Congress to repeal DADT." That is an important distinction.

We can make progress and gain public support when we are HONEST - claiming all these "promises," especially considering politicians know better than to actually promise anything, hurts us. The idea that we can hold somebody accountable for something they didn't even say or promise is delusional. It is why these faux attempts to hold someone accountable by embarrassing them are hurting our movement. Pissing on our friends in an effort to "hold them accountable" for something they didn't say is both childish and stupid.

In politics you get what you vote for - effort. Everybody knows "political promises" are not very reliable - it's even worse when we simply make them up. Just because politicians are dishonest it doesn't mean we need to be.

kyledeb said...


I wanted to thank you for covering both protests at Netroots Nation. I contributed to the action on behalf of the DREAMers. While your point makes sense, that if the DREAMers had rushed the stage they would have gotten more attention, it would also have made a lot of people angry, which could have possibly done more harm than good.

I also wanted to correct your original article for aol news. One of the four undocumented youth who protested wasn't Latino, but was born in Fiji of South Asian descent. Prerna Lal is also a blogger for too.

This wasn't the only action undocumented youth did with Reid's office. The real dramatic action was last week when they sat in his office which actually did acheive it's goal of getting him to move forward on on the DREAM Act. We also delivered 20,000 petitions to his staff before his speech.

We got what we wanted. Reid said he'll move it forward with the 60 votes. Now we just need to show him we have the 60 votes.