Transition trimester

Anna Quindlen

December 03, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

A WISE obstetrician once said a newborn baby is so unfinished that the first three months of its life constitute a kind of fourth trimester of gestation.

A wise political strategist might do well to consider the transition as a kind of fourth trimester of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.

While press conjecture about this three-month period most often fo

cuses on those shadowy figures who will sit in the big chairs in the departments of Justice and Defense, Labor and Education, the figure who most needs illumination is the president-elect himself.

An unlikely issue will go some way toward doing that. Mr. Clinton vowed during his campaign that he would lift a ban on gay people in the military, and he reaffirmed that promise in a post-election news conference. Predictably, all hell broke loose.

He hasn't backed off from his commitment, but he did start to talk a lot more about information gathering, about listening to people like Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sen. Sam Nunn, head of the Armed Services Committee, who are opposed to the plan.

This is the president-elect's preferred mode of operation. The consensus king of Little Rock, he is known as an indefatigable poller of opinion and gatherer of information. Friends call this democratic, opponents unprincipled. Depending on whether you like the guy or not, his trip to Washington, in which he mingled with small-business owners on Georgia Avenue and dined with the Democratic doyenne Pamela Harriman, could be seen as pluralism or packaging.

There are still a fair number of people who are not sure whether they like Bill Clinton. The Perot phenomenon wrote large a thirst to find a politician who said what he meant and meant what he said, who wasn't -- well, a politician.

Mr. Clinton tried to portray himself as that sort of man, and he should use this fourth trimester to further persuade the unconvinced, to exorcise forever the ghost of slick Willie, ambition wonk.

Small are the number of people who stew at night over whether lesbian Marines are being treated properly by a government that has wasted millions of dollars to root them out. Most Americans would agree with the sign that hung in Clinton campaign headquarters, the one that reminded the troops that the issue was the economy, stupid.

But American voters, not being stupid, know that the economy can take time to rebound and that the president does not always control how and when that happens. And they know the difference between issues that demand study and consensus, and those that demand nothing more or less than a leader of strong beliefs and backbone.

You can study how best to integrate an all-white college, you can talk to administrators and students who say they will not stay if that happens, but at a certain point you simply have to say that it is morally right and do it.

That is what Mr. Clinton must do with gay people in the military. Enlisted men say they will leave and officers say lifting the ban on homosexuals will threaten esprit de corps. (General Powell should go back and read the microfilm of news stories on the debate over integrating the services, to see the very rhetoric he uses against gays used against mingling black and white soldiers.) They talk of danger in the barracks and shower rooms, ignoring the fact that there have long been gays in the military with little incident. Mr. Clinton had it just right when he said: "The issue is not whether there are gays in the military. It is whether they can be in the military without lying about it."

After the firestorm Mr. Clinton said he would impose a very strict code of sexual conduct on gay people in the armed forces. I hope he will publicly advocate the same for heterosexuals in the armed forces, and for members of the U.S. Senate, too.

Wise to study economic solutions, wise to mull over foreign relationships, the president-elect would be wise also to swiftly and matter-of-factly issue an executive order lifting the ban on gay people in the military. Pen on paper, he can accomplish two things -- he can do right, and he can illustrate decisively that, when the occasion demands it, he will not be the kind of man who trades principle for politics.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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