Military showdown

Sandy Grady

April 01, 1993|By Sandy Grady

THIS IS the way it begins, with Capitol cops lining the walls of a Senate hearing room, armed against any riot, brawl or unruly shouting.

The chamber feels like a powder keg with an unlit fuse.

In the spectator seats are young, close-cropped men wearing buttons: "Stop Discrimination -- End the Military Ban." No military uniforms are in sight.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., somber as a hanging judge, bangs the gavel.

This is how it starts, the public debate on Bill Clinton's dynamite-loaded vow to lift the bar against gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

And to no one's surprise, Mr. Clinton is quickly in trouble.

"Am I open-minded about the proposition that homosexuality be open and approved in the armed services?" Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., asked rhetorically. "No way."

"There were good reasons for it in the first place, and nothing has changed now," said rookie Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C.

You look at the lineup of Armed Service panel lions and figure Mr. Clinton would get whipped, 17-3. Probably only Chuck Robb, D-Va., Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., would back the lifting of the ban on military gays.

Sam Nunn? Forget it. On the gays controversy -- and other defense hand grenades -- Mr. Nunn and the president are like two onrushing comets. They've gotta collide.

Sure, chairman Sam, true to his word, began these hearings with a string of expert witnesses on military code, history and homosexual law. The droning was so dull, Sen. Joe Liberman, D-N.Y., joked, "Only Nunn could have make such an explosive issue boring."

On the key question -- what happens if gays openly wear the country's uniform -- the experts didn't have a clue.

"You won't know until the genie's out of the bottle," said sociologist Dr. David Burrelli. Thanks, doc.

Mr. Nunn thinks he knows what will happen: chaos. In the chairman's seat, he plays the impartial umpire. But Mr. Nunn sees open, avowed homosexuality blasting apart military morale.

To gay crusaders, the senator is a southern-fried storm trooper. To Washington cynics, Mr. Nunn has a bad case of political envy. They whisper that he is permanently miffed because Mr. Clinton, not he, grabbed the 1992 presidential chance. They say Mr. Nunn's banging heads with the president because he was skipped as secretary of state.

Both charges -- Mr. Nunn as a closet fascist or sorehead Clinton saboteur -- are flat-out phony. Mr. Nunn's got one spur: protector of the military. Mr. Clinton isn't the first president he's hand-wrestled. He opposed George Bush's shooting war in Iraq. And he denied John Tower, whom he saw as heavy-boozing womanizer, the No. 1 job at Defense.

In the Nunn-vs.-Clinton combat on military gays, Mr. Nunn has heavy guns. Gen. Colin Powell, fellow Pentagon chiefs, most active military people and public polls are arrayed against the president.

The "cooling-off period" Mr. Nunn talked Mr. Clinton into has been anything but frosty. Outside Camp Lejeune, N.C., 900 people screamed and harangued speakers who argued the gays' case. Bumper stickers appear: "Keep the Ban -- Clinton Doesn't Know Because He Wouldn't Go."

The anger's understandable. As one who did time on Navy ships, I too once thought Mr. Clinton's decision wrong-headed. But I suspect we'll look back in 10 years at 1993's military-gays rhubarb and wonder about the fury, just as we now recollect Harry Truman's 1948 desegregation order.

So why can't the senator and the president find a compromise? "I don't see possibility of compromise," says Thomas Stoddard, spokesman for the gay Campaign for Military Service. "It's a question of justice."

"Both sides talk past each other," says Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine general against lifting the ban. "To gays it's civil rights, to the military it degrades performance."

My hunch is that Mr. Clinton, political courage on the line, will lift the gay ban July 15. Then Congress will pass a law to restore the ban, and Mr. Clinton's clout will be tested in a veto battle.

End the furor in a public showdown, not by Bill's fiat.

"The swing vote," says openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., "will be people who very much wish no one had brought this up."

I suspect that includes most of us. When he said he'd be a "new Democrat," Bill Clinton didn't promise Dullsville.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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