Issue of having gays in military grows into political power test

January 28, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Born of a volatile mix of clashing principles, political rivalries, missed cues, wounded pride and contested turf, the already explosive issue of gays in the military has now become a test of power as well: a struggle between President Clinton and one of the most prideful barons of Congress, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn.

And even as White House aides scramble to find a compromise to diffuse the clash, the outcome almost certainly will shape that most crucial of presidential assets: the perception of power.

As a result, although the issue of gays in the military is in some ways unique, members of Congress and lobbyists and others are watching from the sidelines, taking the measure of the new chief executive, beginning to calculate how bold or cautious they should be when their own turn in the arena comes.

In part the clash involves a deeply held difference of principle. Mr. Clinton and his aides have repeatedly described the issue of gays in the military as one of civil rights.

Mr. Nunn presents the issue in very different terms. "It's not simply the right of homosexuals at stake. It's also the right of all those men and women who serve in the military," he said in a Senate speech.

But, as with most high-profile issues in Washington, the clash also involves matters of personality and prerogative.

For his part, Mr. Nunn "sees this in part as a 'mano a mano' test of manhood about who runs defense policy," one former senior defense official said yesterday.

"This is a chance to assert himself and the prerogatives of Congress and to take [Defense Secretary] Les Aspin down a notch or two," said the source, who is close to Mr. Nunn.

Mr. Nunn was spurred to opposition when Mr. Aspin discussed on television policy issues that Mr. Nunn had not been told about. Mr. Nunn and Mr. Aspin are longtime rivals.

The problems have been heightened by Mr. Clinton's awkward relationship with Mr. Nunn. The two have been allies as part of the group of moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats.

But Mr. Nunn has never hidden his own interest in the presidency.

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