Preaching the cause of tolerance, President Clinton tonight told hundreds of gay and lesbian supporters gathered here that it is time for the nation to rise up more vigorously against all forms of hate, which he called "America's largest problem."
In an address interrupted often by rousing cheers, Clinton told a packed ballroom inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel that even in a time of astounding technological advances and economic prosperity, the country is still being undermined by all too many acts of violent bigotry.
"I am going to do everything I can, every day that I have, to remind people of that--that we have to be one America," the president said. "And we cannot be under the illusion that either material prosperity or technological breakthroughs alone can purge the darkness in our hearts."
He recalled the slayings last year of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd, a black man in Texas who was tied to a truck and then dragged to his death by white men. Then he mentioned the shooting rampage this summer at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles by white supremacist Buford Furrow, who also allegedly killed a Filipino postman because he looked Asian or Hispanic. Clinton vowed as well to continue fighting for hate-crime legislation in Congress as well as a bill that would ban job discrimination against gays.
In California's Silicon Valley Friday night, Clinton sounded a similar theme, telling Democratic supporters: "Isn't it ironic that the thing that's holding us back most . . . is our inability to form a community around our common humanity because of our vulnerability to mankind's most ancient fear, the fear of the other?"
Gay and lesbian activists called tonight's dinner, which was organized by longtime Clinton friend David Mixner, a milestone in their quest to gain more clout in national politics.
It was the largest gay political fund-raiser ever held, as well as the first time that Clinton, or any other president, has spoken publicly to a gay group outside of Washington. The dinner is expected to bring in about $900,000 for Democratic congressional candidates in next year's elections. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who just signed several gay rights measures into law, also spoke to the gathering.
Clinton is scheduled to speak next week at a similar gay and lesbian event in New York. It is expected to reap more than $1 million for Democrats who support their equal rights agenda.
Tonight's dinner was hosted by Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a group that was one of Clinton's earliest supporters when he first ran for president. Since then, the group has expressed dismay with some of his policies. But Clinton's appearance tonight was greeted with adulation.
"We've come a long way, baby," said Roberta Bennett, one of the organizers. "Isn't this amazing?"
Referring to his record on gay rights, Clinton told the group, "I wish we could have done better, but we're a long way from where we were."
In Michigan tonight, Bill Bradley cited the same hate crimes the president listed and said that if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee he will make supporting an anti-hate crime bill a key campaign issue.
Addressing the Human Rights Campaign's anniversary dinner in Dearborn, Mich., Bradley said: "We have to oppose any manifestations of hatred with undiminished fervor whenever and wherever it occurs," the Associated Press reported.
Bradley told members of the Washington-based lesbian and gay political organization that he would extend benefits to same-sex couples but would not call same-sex unions marriage because that would keep it from being approved by states.
"I will not call gay unions marriage, but I will respect them and I will work to see that same-sex couples receive the property, insurance, immigration, tax and rights enjoyed by various others," he said to applause.
Clinton's weekend trip to the West, which began Friday with a brief stop in Las Vegas, primarily has been a whirlwind tour to raise money for Democratic candidates. But he also took time earlier today in Palo Alto, Calif., to visit his daughter Chelsea, who is an undergraduate at Stanford University.
After tonight's gay and lesbian fund-raiser, Clinton went to a $15,000-per-couple dinner at the Brentwood home of film director Rob Reiner. On Sunday, Clinton will address at a fund-raising luncheon in Los Angeles for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) before returning to Washington early Monday morning.