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There’s a fine line between charisma and charm. If charisma is the bait, charm is the rod and reel. And Kate Clinton has both.
”You see her and you know her,” says Cathy Renna, longtime activist and managing partner of Renna Communications, who guesses she first met Clinton about 20 years ago. ”You can take an elevator ride with her and you’re a friend for life. She connects with so many people in the community.”
Beyond the one-on-one, Clinton also knows how to work a room.
”Kate’s presence at our annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit over the years has contributed so much to the event,” says Selisse Berry, founder and executive director of the organization working to end employment discrimination against LGBT people. ”First and foremost, as an out and outspoken lesbian, she represents LGBT culture in a very positive light to our business-oriented audiences seeking to create fully inclusive workplace equality. Her presence provides a role model to LGBT people in the audience and her words educate our straight allies about who we are in a way that is so accessible.”
So accessible, Berry points out, that in the middle of conducting a live auction at an Out & Equal event, Clinton decided to throw in a grilled cheese sandwich at her house. For the political wonks, that also offered the possibility of running into Clinton’s partner, longtime social-justice activist Urvashi Vaid.
But it’s not as though Clinton is desperate to be everyone’s best friend. When she gets political, which is often, she’s happy to offer a few barbs.
”I’ll never forget seeing Obama’s face at the inauguration,” says Clinton, a fan of President Obama. ”There was a look about him, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God. He just saw the books.’ Like he really saw what we’re in. Like when you hire the new guy and he gets in and finds out there’s no money and you’re going to have to fire everybody. He had that look.
”I always said, whoever got the job after Bush, it would be, ‘Cleanup on aisle 5.’ And that’s what it is.”
Whatever her formula for comedy, politics, punditry and activism, it’s put Clinton in one spotlight or another for 30 years. Whether it’s writing books, providing a little color on CNN, getting a bit naughty with an Olivia Cruise audience, or leading a crowd at a rally, it’s a formula with staying power.
Ahead of her upcoming dates in Alexandria and Baltimore, Clinton spoke from her New York home about her new tour: The Glee Party. ”If the whole world’s going down, we might as well be gleeful and gay.”
METRO WEEKLY: You’ve got a birthday coming up, don’t you?
KATE CLINTON: I do.
MW: According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong —
MW: It says you’ll be 64 on Nov. 9. How will you celebrate?
CLINTON: I have dashed my girlfriend’s hope of having a giant ”When I’m 64” party. Actually, it looks like I’m going to have dinner with friends, like for three nights. Everybody’s so crazy with their schedules, we’re just going to have three days of dinner parties. It will be a blast.
MW: You’ll be in town for your birthday, but you’re doing a lot of touring. How’s that going?
CLINTON: I just did a show, emceed the Out & Equal dinner in Dallas for 26 hundred crazy people at the end of the conference. It was really fun. And Margaret Cho was there, so it was really fun. Out & Equal is just this incredible group trying to bring LGBT diversity to the workplace. The CEO of J.C. Penney was there, Northrop Grumman – it was insane. And them Margaret gets up and just rips ’em! [Laughs.] The Northrop Grumman table was a bit stiff.
MW: I hope Margaret doesn’t get bombed.
CLINTON: She probably has her own drone now.
Then I flew to Seattle and did a great, fun show at the Benaroya Hall. And I had a great show in Portland, Ore. I love doing the shows. But maybe I should talk to the Northrup Grumman people – I would like ”tele-transportation” so I could just not do airplanes.
MW: Certainly you’re not flying coach?
CLINTON: Sometimes I am.
MW: That’s disheartening for the rest of us who might’ve thought a Kate Clinton level of success would mean never having to fly coach.
CLINTON: All I need is an amazing crossword puzzle and I won’t even know where I am. When I flew back on Sunday, I had done my hunting and gathering in the airport and found a New York Times crossword puzzle, so I was all right.
MW: I used to live in Portland, where the estrogen flows in the streets, so I want to know if you had a good time there.
CLINTON: It’s a great food town. Someone might say, ”Let’s go here, it’s vegan.” Ugh. But in Portland it’s actually great.
MW: I’m guessing your Portland audiences are the sort who throw their panties onstage when you’re performing.
(Photo by David Rodgers)
CLINTON: No, they didn’t. I don’t encourage that kind of thing. I still look like your high school English teacher.
MW: With a bit of a mouth. I think you do encourage that kind of thing.
CLINTON: I do.
MW: I think we can say you’re ”sex positive.”
MW: This particular tour, ”The Glee Party,” the way it’s billed I can’t tell if you’re going to cheer up audiences of just commiserate. Seems like ”The Armageddon Tour.”
CLINTON: I think I cheer them up. Everyone is so traumatized by the economy and the government – or lack thereof. I sometimes think they’re so traumatized, I could say ”boo” and they’d think, ”Oh, thank God, let’s laugh.” There’re really disproportionate howls of laughter, because everybody’s just so freaked – rightly.
MW: Traveling the country, what are you seeing? Have you walked through any ”occupy” whatever camps?
CLINTON: There was a very active Occupy Portland camp. That night I think there was a curfew and they didn’t obey it – shocking – and they were arrested. And Seattle has always looked like Occupy Wall Street.
I’m fine they haven’t given me their 10-point program or given me their solutions to the economy, when Congress hasn’t either. The tea baggers are against government and fully funded, with Karl Rove or a leader somewhere calling the shots. Occupy Wall Street people are not funded. They don’t have leaders. They’re happy about that. And I’m happy that there’s an opposition.
MW: Opposition to the government? To the GOP, Wall Street or the tea party?
CLINTON: I think it really has gone right to the heart, which is the financial system. In my ”inner Black Swan” days, I just think that elections are these cute little things that corporations let us do every two or four years: ”The people seem to enjoy it. It keeps ’em busy. You get a lot of television revenue. But we’re still in charge.” I think the genius of Occupy Wall Street is they did a kind of end-run around the government and they’re going right to the source of the problem.
Actually, one of the couples who were [at our Halloween party] are bankers. They’re quite bristled about Occupy Wall Street, but I think that even they would agree there does need to be some kind of regulation. They wouldn’t heartily agree, by any means. [Laughs.] I think it’s really gotten out of control.
MW: Where in New York do you live? Are you near Wall Street?
CLINTON: We are on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We have gone down, but we went down in the early, early stages. We’re going to have to bring some soup down, because it’s getting colder. I think it’s a great time to find some kind of interior space and plan a spring offensive.
MW: Maybe they’ll stay put and Elizabeth Warren will deliver gifts on Christmas Eve.
CLINTON: She’s so feisty! I love her. She’s fabulous.
MW: Speaking of feisty, you recorded a post on your site, a little memorial for Mary Daly. I had to do a little research to find out why a commenter on your post would compare her to Dr. Mengele.
CLINTON: Really? Wow.
MW: Arguing that Daly advocated genocide of men.
CLINTON: Do we feel a little threatened? [Laughs.]
MW: Reading some of her political thought, I granted that the poster could have a point, but that it seemed more like when a women’s studies professor insists that neutral pronouns in class discussion be female instead of male.
CLINTON: Yes, it was more like that. I always was amazed that Boston College even let her be there for so long. A transformative book for me was Beyond God the Father. It was like everything I had sensed, and perhaps not articulated, about the complete male domination of the Catholic Church. It was just so liberating for me. She definitely was radical. She definitely loved – she just loved – to stir it up. As with everything, you take what works for you. It was just really inspirational for me. I had never seen anything like it.
MW: Was Mary Daly a friend, or just a thinker you admired?
CLINTON: A thinker I admired. She was in classic western Massachusetts, Northampton – or, as we call it, ”critical Mass.” [Laughs.] Up there in the valley there were lots of women’s colleges, and she was right in the middle of it, stirring it up. She was really critical. As the same time, Audre Lorde was critical in my thinking. And Adrienne Rich. Anytime I can mention them and have people say, ”Hmm, I’m going to look them up,” it’s great.
MW: You’ve also been influenced by so many events. You were in your early 20s during the Stonewall riots. You remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King, President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War protests. AIDS in the 1980s. And there’s plenty going on now. How does 2011 compare to years past?
CLINTON: During the ’60s, I was in college and I was living at home with, basically, a fundamentalist Catholic mother and a father who was far more libertarian than I thought, but always portrayed as, ”Don’t tell Dad – it will kill him.” What really moved me out of very conservative thought was feminism. I often look at where I come from and where I am now as one of the most perfect examples that people can change. So that gives me hope. I’m very hopeful. My girlfriend accuses me of a certain degree of Pollyannaism. But I’m hopeful – I have to be – that things can change, that people can make a change. I’ve often said that George Bush’s legacy is it does show that one person can change the world. [Laughs.]
People can change and things can change. I take that example from my own life. I really gave it my best shot, and the Black Swan person – the person who reads the paper in the morning and is like, ”Oh, fuck!” — did not appear. [Laughs.] But that’s part of my job. The hardest part of my job, actually, is to take in what’s happening and try to give it an optimistic or transformational spin.
MW: Were you in New York for 9/11?
CLINTON: I was.
MW: Did you keep your optimism in the face of 9/11?
CLINTON: I absolutely kept my optimism. It was horrible, but amazing how people here pulled together. Then to see that moment so twisted and used to essentially invade the wrong country…. It’s almost cartoonish, allegorical: ”And, therefore, we’re going to invade Iraq.” What?
That was probably one of the most challenging times to do comedy. But I saw how people pulled together here.
MW: That Catholic upbringing, that was in Buffalo?
CLINTON: I grew up in Buffalo till I was about 10. Then my family moved to Syracuse. Two words: lake effect. Then I lived at home and went to a Catholic college, a Jesuit college. Then I taught high school English for eight years. The first day I went to do my student teaching was the first day I’d ever been in a public school. Instead of incense kinds of smells, there was more of that green-sawdust smell, after someone heaves.
I had always completely loved women, but there was no language for that. I can remember talking to a friend of mine recently about, ”How did we know it was wrong?” It was never spoken, but we totally got the message. Then, in my last year of teaching, I had the good fortune of falling in love with a Quaker who had no concept of guilt.
MW: God bless the Quakers.
CLINTON: I love the Quakers. We had a wonderful evening. And the next day I was talking to her and she said, ”So, I told my sister.” And I was like, ”What!? You told your sister?” ”Well, why not?” And I thought, ”Really, why not?” That’s what I really count as the beginning of my coming out.
MW: And you probably still get a smile every time you eat a bowl of oatmeal. Do you have siblings?
CLINTON: I have three brothers and a sister. They all had different reactions. I have a very fundamentalist Catholic brother, although he’s more of the Pope John XXIII, liberation theology. He’s like the only one in my family who didn’t call and congratulate us about marriage in New York. They’re just amazing. They’re wonderful.
MW: Speaking of marriage, what is your status with Urvashi Vaid? You’ve used the term ”girlfriend,” you’ve used ”partner.”
CLINTON: I’m going to call her ”husband.” [Laughs.] We’re domestic partners.
MW: Have you considered marriage? You’ve been together more than 20 years, haven’t you?
CLINTON: It will be 24. [Singing.] ”We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall….”
We’ve talked about it, we just haven’t done it. We’ve taken a lot of pressure from my little 5-year-old neighbor from across the hallway. She said, ”Are you getting married?” I said, ”Enh.” ”Oh, you’re just going to live together?” Kind of very accusing for a little girl.
I totally love and support and absolutely hear how surprised people are, what a transforming moment it is. We’ve resisted, but we could elope tomorrow. I don’t know. I think I’m terrified of the big party. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But I’ve always told her, ”If we get married, I want the Indian elephant.” I want the big Indian celebration. It would be totally insane.
MW: Indian music is fantastic.
CLINTON: It is, isn’t it? Bhangra is great.
MW: What about kids? You never had any, right?
CLINTON: No, not that I know of. There was that softball summer…. [Laughs.]
No, I never did. I remember when I was 5, maybe, being at a little local pool with my family during the summer. I was probably helping a little kid to swim and I remember my mother saying, ”Oh, Kathy loves children.” And I remember, at 5 years old, thinking, ”I’m never having any.” Then, I knew.
MW: As a decision or a premonition?
CLINTON: Both, actually. I had seen how hard it was. I had a younger brother and it was like, ”Oh, my God, it’s a lot of work.” [Laughs.] I think it’s better for the kids. I always say, ”I love children, that’s why I don’t have them.”
MW: Do you get a lot of political insight from your partner?
CLINTON: Absolutely! I’ve often said we’re the marriage of comedy and tragedy, but I’m not saying which is which. But she has always said this to me after a show: ”Well, that was too long.” Then she says, ”But you’ve got to do more politics.”
MW: Is she as funny as you?
CLINTON: Oh, she’s very funny. Very funny. We actually are great joke writers. She does great setups, and then I do the punch line. One of my favorite was during the Clinton administration she was screaming at the paper one morning, going, ”They’ve backed up on everything! They’ve backed up on gays in the military. They’ve backed up on health care.” I said, ”Yeah, their theme song ought to be beep, beep, beep….”
I think being able to do comedy has saved my life. Being able to have a release for my frustration and anger and to be able to get that out has really saved my life. There are points – like December is a quiet month – and I’m not on the road much, and my partner will say to me, ”Could you just go and do a gig somewhere?”
MW: She wants you to do a gig to get cheered up, or because you’re bringing her down?
CLINTON: Just to get this out. Truly, sometimes I feel like I’m doing a show and I’m so angry I can’t imagine why everyone isn’t crying. [Laughs.]
MW: So, you’re at home on a Sunday going through The New York Times and not keeping it to yourself?
CLINTON: Oh, no.
MW: And your partner is saying–
CLINTON: ”Just go. Please. Do that somewhere. We’ll all feel better.” It really is a perfect job for me.
Kate Clinton performs The Glee Party Friday, Nov. 18, for Creative Alliance at the Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $30, $25 for members and students, available by calling 410-276-1651 or online at creativealliance.org. The tour continues, Saturday, Nov. 19, at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com.
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