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From Wal-Mart to the White House 

Hope produces a champion for gay rights.

click to enlarge GRIFFIN: Oppose the homophobes.
  • GRIFFIN: Oppose the homophobes.

Quick: Name the wunderkind from Hope who went to the White House in 1993.

That would be Chad Griffin, born in Hope, raised in Arkadelphia, a fresh-faced 19 years old when Dee Dee Myers invited him to work in the West Wing press office.

Now a political consultant in Los Angeles, Griffin has earned what might be a more substantial claim to fame: Backed by a foundation created by actor and director Rob Reiner and headed by Griffin, he put together the wildly unlikely legal team of Theodore Olson and David Boies to head the challenge of California's Proposition 8, the gay-marriage repeal voted last year.

That's Olson and Boies as in Bush v. Gore, in which the ultra-conservative Olson represented George W. Bush and Boies represented Al Gore. Olson served in Ronald Reagan's administration, was solicitor general in Bush's and is a high-profile member of the right-wing Federalist Society. His support of a legal theory that says the Constitution prohibits the states from banning same-sex marriage raised every eyebrow.

Even Griffin's. “When someone said to me you should talk to Ted Olson; you might be surprised,” Griffin was skeptical. “The Ted Olson I know was Bush v. Gore. He outsmarted us.” But after meeting confidentially with Olson in Washington, Griffin became convinced that Olson truly believed California's ban to be unconstitutional. He wasn't going to throw the case, as some initially suggested. “He doesn't want to lose the most significant civil rights case” of our time, Griffin said. “This is Ted Olson's legacy.”

Looking up over his catfish and sweetened tea at the bar of the Capital Hotel, the former Arkadelphia Badger said, “Any thinking person knows the way this issue is headed.”

Who would have known where Griffin was headed when he volunteered to work in Bill Clinton's presidential campaign office in Little Rock in 1992?

 

 n Here's how Chad Griffin, now 36, became the youngest person ever to be employed in the West Wing:

After his senior year in high school, Griffin, who was deeply interested in international news and politics and had spent a summer in Japan, went to Germany on scholarship to study for a year. Back home, Clinton had announced he was running for president. People outside Arkansas weren't taking the campaign very seriously, but a Californian Griffin was studying with abroad was a big Clinton fan.

The morning after the day he returned to Arkadelphia, Griffin got a phone call from the California man.

“What the hell are you doing at home?” the friend asked Griffin. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?' ”

“The next president of the United States is your governor and is headquartered in Little Rock and you should be there today,”  the friend said.

“And the next day I drove to Little Rock,” Griffin said, “and I walked in the volunteer office and they said do you want to open mail or answer phones and I said I want to work in the press office. And I became Dee Dee Myers' intern.”

It was June, before the convention. Griffin took classes at Ouachita Baptist University two days a week and traveled the other five to Little Rock.

Nodding in the direction of the Old Statehouse, Griffin said, “On election night, I was standing right across the street. I had never taken the step of ... He's gonna be president?”

Myers hired Griffin for the transition press team. Ten days before the inauguration, “Dee Dee asked me if I wanted to come on the press charter and help. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?' ”  He packed a bag, got on the plane and was off to D.C.

The day before the inauguration, Myers asked him if he would mind not going. He gulped, said of course not, will do whatever you need … and she asked him to be part of the skeleton crew at the White House that would attend the changeover.

And so he went. He watched as the Bushes' dog, Millie, was being driven away. There were moving vans, one bringing in the Clintons' furniture, the other taking away the Bushes'. He was in the Oval Office when Bush's desk was removed and replaced with Clinton's. “It was one of the most memorable visual experiences ever,” Griffin said. “There is actually a brilliantly orchestrated transition of power, a second in which it happens.”

Myers hired him as the lower West Wing press office manager. The only real job he'd held before working for Clinton was at Wal-Mart, in Arkadelphia.

“I was 19. I had more hair and I didn't wear glasses,” he said. He still holds the title as youngest person ever to work in the West Wing. “I hope a lot of young people get the opportunity in this administration, but I want them to be 20,” he added.

 

 n Griffin got hooked up with Rob Reiner by accident. He was press duty officer one Sunday when Secret Security asked him to show Reiner and his wife, Michele, around the White House. They were working on the movie, “The American President.” They stayed in touch, became friends. In 1997, Griffin — who left the White House after two years — graduated from Georgetown's school of foreign service and was about to take a job at the State Department when he got a call from the Reiners. They asked him to meet them in New York to discuss a foundation they were starting. Could he help get it off the ground? He could.

Soon he was dividing his time between Los Angeles and New York.

What is it about Griffin? Is he a genius? 

“I've had a lot of luck,” he says. “I've never had a grand plan, professionally. When the opportunity has arisen, I haven't feared walking through the door.”

That and a lot of political smarts will get you your own business — Griffin/Schake — and a client list that includes the Live Earth global concert series, the U.S. Green Building Council and Brad Pitt's Make it Sustainable housing development in New Orleans. He helps Hollywood's philanthropists advance their causes. He was campaign manager for California's Clean Alternative Energy and anti-smoking initiatives, and promoted the successful Stem Cell Research and Cures initiative.

It was October last year when Griffin was called in to turn around “No” on the Proposition 8 campaign. In three weeks, the campaign gained 8 points in polling. It lost, getting 47.9 percent of the vote. Thus were same-sex marriage rights overturned in California. Now, Griffin said, California recognizes the marriages of heterosexuals, homosexuals who wed between 2004 and 2008 and homosexuals who legally wed in other states. Gay couples who wish to marry now may not. “It's a preposterous scheme,” Griffin said.

 

 n When Griffin's team got involved in Proposition 8, the strategist had only been out of the closet for eight years.

“I don't even use the word closeted,” Griffin said, so buried were his feelings. “I was dating girls. I was confused, I guess.”

He recalled being at Vice President Gore's home for a party when Gore greeted a guest by inquiring after his partner. The vice president of the United States was making no distinction between straight and gay. It was a moment of huge import for Griffin.

In 2000, when Griffin decided to come out, he flew to Arkansas to visit his mother, Betty Hightower. He celebrated with her at her retirement party — she was a school principal — and afterward told her. “She looked at me and she said, ‘I knew that. Did you think I would love you any less?' ”

Not everyone's family embraces the gay son or daughter. Earlier this year, blogs that focus on gay issues were abuzz with the story of the OBU student whose parents allegedly sent him to a “conversion camp” after they discovered he had a male lover. That's the kind of attitude — excused with thumps on the Bible — that's behind the startling statistics of suicide among gay teen-agers. They are four times more likely to commit suicide than straight teen-agers, various surveys have found; it's nine times greater among teens whose families reject their sexuality. Suicide is, in fact, the leading cause of death among gay teens.

When Griffin was flying home one recent Christmas he found himself seated next to the youth minister at what he would describe only as one of Little Rock's “significant” churches. The two chatted and the minister asked Griffin what his holiday plans were. Griffin said after Christmas he planned to meet his boyfriend in Hawaii. That led to a conversation about faith; Griffin told the minister that while he grew up in the Southern Baptist church he would not today support the institution. “They preach bigotry and hate on a number of issues.”

The minister was a nice man and very accepting. And then he said, “We all sin.” At which point, Griffin said, “I just want you to hear something” and suddenly everybody around them tuned in. Griffin told the preacher that gays are born with their sexuality, just as he was born straight. Gays couldn't flip a switch and be straight, nor would they want to.

“The most important thing for you to know,” Griffin said he told the man, “is that if you've got a youth group with 50 people in it you've got multiple kids, whether out or not, who are gay. You are someone they look up to and whatever you do and say about this issue is going to impact them.

“They could be quietly contemplating suicide. And you yourself have the power to change that person's life.”

Between flights, Griffin and the minister had lunch together. The minister prayed that Griffin and his boyfriend, mentioning him by name, have a safe flight to Hawaii. They continued their conversation all the way to Little Rock and have e-mailed a few times since. “I got the sense he didn't have any hate in him.”

 

 n Last year's election season was “bittersweet” for Griffin. He was excited to have a Democrat headed to the White House. But there was the “double whammy” of California's ban and “my home state passing this horrific, discriminatory, bigoted initiative that actually hurts kids.”

He was, of course, referring to Initiated Act 1, which prevents unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children, even those they are related to.

Griffin calls himself a promoter of Arkansas, praises the public education he got, the people. He's thrilled that the Arkansas legislature has an openly gay state representative, Kathy Webb, and an openly gay candidate for the state Senate in 2010, Jay Barth. Their openness is exactly what is needed to change hearts and minds about the right for all couples to marry.

He's not happy, on the other hand, with Fourth Congressional District Rep. Mike Ross, whose first race Griffin supported. “I've been very disappointed in the way he's voted. I would not help him again.”

And that, Griffin says, is the key: The gay community across the nation has money and numbers — as much as 19 percent of the vote in some places — and needs to vote out any official, Democrat or not, who won't walk the walk. He anticipates consequences for the New York senators who last week defeated a bill to legalize gay marriage.

“If there is an elected official who is anti-gay we should organize and get them out of office. We are a significant base for the Democratic Party, a huge donor base … We should not sit silently by and watch people cast homophobic votes.”

Gay rights advocates earlier lost a referendum in Maine to extend marriage to same-sex couples. Griffin believes there should still be a push at the state level against right-wing ballot measures, but says that a federal victory is ultimately what's needed.

 “The Constitution doesn't have a clause that says this goes into effect when a majority of the American public, including conservative states, agree to it,” he said. If it did, when would interracial marriage, not decided by the high court as a right until 1967, have been legalized across the country?

“It is offensive,” Griffin said, “to put anyone's fundamental human rights up to a popular vote of the people.”

 

 n Unlike Arkansas's attorney general, who will defend the state's prohibition of adoption by gay couples, California Attorney General Jerry Brown Jr. says his state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and he won't support it. At the last pre-trial hearing Dec. 16, federal Judge Vaughn Walker may decide whether to allow television coverage of the trial. The plaintiffs, a lesbian couple and a gay couple, want TV coverage; the defendants do not. Walker wants to create a comprehensive record on the institution of marriage — with evidence regarding its history, its purpose, what the consequences of gay marriage would be — that would ultimately be before the highest court in the land. It could result in a decision that, without the help of a kid from Arkadelphia who got hired at the White House, may, for better or worse, have been much longer in coming.

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