LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Vowing to make good on one of his more dramatic campaign promises, President-elect Bill Clinton said yesterday that he intended to lift the 50-year ban on gays in the military.
Mr. Clinton spoke about the controversial issue after attending a Veterans Day ceremony at the state Capitol here during which he said he was committed to keeping the United States "the strongest in the world" even as he pared down military forces.
In his first major public appearance since his Election Day victory, Mr. Clinton pledged to reform the health care system for veterans, especially those who are homeless, and to retrain those who would lose jobs because of military cutbacks. He also said he would do his best to make sure there was a "final and full resolution" to the POW-MIA issue.
"I won't rest until this issue is resolved," he said.
The president-elect's public debut as the nation's leader-to-be was a quiet reminder of the most sensitive issue of Mr. Clinton's 13-month presidential campaign -- his own non-service in the military during the Vietnam War.
But speaking to veterans leaders in the Arkansas Capitol rotunda yesterday, Mr. Clinton, who actively opposed the Vietnam War, made no mention of his own draft history. Instead, he said he would dedicate himself to "fulfilling the responsibilities of commander in chief."
"Make no mistake about it -- you can read the newspaper any day -- this is still a dangerous and uncertain world," he said. "What we need more than anything is to maintain . . . a superbly trained and well-motivated military force of men and women and . . . the best possible technology in our weaponry."
Asked after the ceremony about his campaign pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military, he referred to an October 1991 Defense Department study reporting that homosexuality did not affect job performance or pose a security risk.
"We've got a study that says a lot of gays have performed with great distinction in the military," Mr. Clinton said. "I don't think status alone, in the absence of some destructive behavior, should disqualify people."
Mr. Clinton's comments came one day after a federal judge ordered the Navy to reinstate a discharged homosexual sailor or be held in contempt of court. Keith Meinhold, who was honorably discharged in August after he said on national television that he was gay, will be sworn back into the Navy today.
Mr. Clinton said he would meet with military leaders to work out procedures for lifting the ban and allowing homosexuals to enter the military. "How to do it, the mechanics of doing it, I want to consult with military leaders about that," he said. "My position is we need everybody in America that's got a contribution to make, that's willing to obey the law and work hard and play by the rules."
Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said the timing of such an executive order was still uncertain but that Mr. Clinton is "committed" to lifting the ban. "It is something he wants to do," he said.
Revoking the ban would be one of the most far-reaching social changes imposed on the armed services since President Harry S. Truman ordered blacks integrated into the military in 1948. About 14,000 men and women have been kicked out of the services during the past 10 years because they were homosexual.
Mr. Clinton made no mention of the controversial subject on gays in the military during his 20-minute speech before a local group of veterans leaders.
At the solemn military ceremony in the marble-walled rotunda, Mr. Clinton, who has attended such gatherings as Arkansas governor for the last eight years, said, "This is a Veterans Day unlike any other for me. . . . Today I come here with special responsibilities."
He blamed part of the nation's economic woes on layoffs that have resulted from cuts in military spending, saying he felt an obligation to those who helped win the Cold War.
And, noting that he has seen the black POW/MIA flags in every state as he campaigned over the last year, he said he was committed to a final resolution of that issue and would not support normalization of relations with North Vietnam or any nation suspected of withholding information on the fate of prisoners of war or those missing in action.