On Jan. 11, 1999 — a little more than a week before Bill Clinton was set to deliver the last State of the Union Address of the 20th century — he huddled in Oval Office with a group of advisers and worried.
“Mark always says that every time I mention gays, my numbers go down in the State of the Union,” Clinton told his team. “It’s the only thing that goes down.”
Clinton’s concern stemmed from a draft version of the speech, which included a reference to Judy and Dennis Shepard of Casper, Wyo., the parents of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was brutally murdered in October 1998. The Clinton White House was not only considering having the president mention Shepard in his address but also inviting the slain student’s parents to Washington to sit in the first lady’s box during the speech.
Here are the remarks written for Clinton, according to an early draft of the speech:
“With us tonight are Judy and Dennis Shepard of Casper, Wyo. Dennis is an oil rig inspector. Judy [stayed at home and raised two fine sons]. This fall, they were proud when their elder son Matthew enrolled in his Dad’s alma mater, the University of Wyoming. But barely a few months into his freshman year; Matthew was beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead on a deserted country road. He was killed, police say, because he was gay. My fellow Americans, this should never have happened to the Shepards and their son — and it should never happen to any family in America.”
But, according to a transcript of Clinton’s actual address, Clinton never said those words (and didn’t mention Shepard at all in his remarks). As for the Shepards — they were either not invited to attend the 1999 State of the Union address or chose not to come.
Clinton advisers had their own concerns about the family: “The Shepards are Republicans — we can’t say this, but they’re Republicans,” an adviser said during the pre-speech meeting with the president. “We don’t know if they would be interesting in coming.”
‘DeLay Is Probably a Major Suspect’
During the same meeting, as Clinton wrestled with how to deal with Shepard’s murder as well as that of an African-American man in Texas, James Byrd Jr., who in 1998 was tortured and killed by white supremacists (one of whom was later executed for the crime), apparently because he was black, comes this stunner from the president – surely a joke.
“I wish I could have that family from Texas – Tom DeLay is probably a major suspect in that case.”
At the time, DeLay was a top House Republican from Texas, where the Byrd lynching took place.
The comments come from a transcript drawn from an audio recording. The transcript was released on Friday, along with thousands of other pages of documents from the Clinton White House, but the audio recording was not.
‘Stay Away From the Gay Issue’
A year later, in January 2000 – the beginning of 2000, Clinton’s final full year in office – a White House speechwriter got some blunt feedback from a senior administration aide: “Stay away from the gay issue.”
That was the advice given to speechwriter Samir Afridi by Mary L. Smith, then the associate director of policy planning for the White House Domestic Policy Council, regarding a Jan. 15, 2000 radio address Clinton was set to give commemorating Martin Luther King Day.
“Looks good,” Smith wrote to Afridi in a late-night e-mail message responding to a draft of the address. “I wouldn’t mention the JCC shooting in Los Angeles because that case is heating up and DOJ is involved and Bill Lann Lee will be at the radio address – also don’t mention Shepard because our legislative strategy is stay away from the gay issue – mention James Byrd and maybe the Korean church and Coach Byrdsong cases in the Midwest. You could make a statement that the hate crimes bill is about protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”
But perhaps Afridi didn’t follow all of Smith’s guidance. According to a transcript and audio recording of the address Clinton delivered the next day, the president mentioned Shepard and the Los Angeles shooting. Here’s what Clinton said:
“We must also do more to root out forces of hate and intolerance. We’ve seen far too many acts of violence targeted at others solely because of who they are, from the dragging death of James Byrd to the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard to the murder of the African-American basketball coach and the Korean-American student in the Midwest to the shooting at the Jewish school in Los Angeles and the murder of the Filipino postal worker. Such hate crimes leave deep scars not just on the victims but on our larger community, for they take aim at others for who they are. And when they do, they take aim at America. So once again, I ask Congress to stop the delay and pass strong hate crimes legislation.”