Goldwater backs Clinton on lifting anti-gay rule ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Just when President Clinton seems to many to be going under for the third time, who but former Sen. Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself of the 1960s, shows up on the dock to toss him a life preserver.

It comes in the call from the retired Air Force Reserve general and former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman to his old buddies in the conservative and military ranks to drop their opposition to gays in uniform. In his characteristically blunt style, Goldwater has written that Clinton's plan to lift the ban "isn't exactly nothing, but it's pretty damned close."

The 84-year-old one-time Republican presidential nominee, often accused in his landslide loss to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 of living in the past, charges those seeking to perpetuate the ban with doing the same today. "It's time to stop burying our heads in the sand and denying reality for the sake of politics," he has written in the Washington Post -- this from a man who lost the presidency overwhelmingly because voters believed his own head was similarly buried on a wide range of issues.

Goldwater's remarks constitute the second life preserver tossed to Clinton on the matter of gays in the military. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, one of the House's two openly declared homosexuals, recently risked the scorn of many in the gay community by proposing a compromise whereby gays could serve if they kept their sexual orientation to themselves but were free to live their preferred lifestyle off base, and the military would not ask them about it.

So far, Clinton has not grasped either life preserver, although he has said he is open to compromise, possibly along the lines proposed by the present Senate Armed Services chairman, Sam Nunn. Nunn's approach has been dubbed "don't ask, don't tell," but would not in effect sanction the off-base conduct of Frank's compromise.

Goldwater earlier had written to Nunn expressing support for his approach, but he now writes that Nunn's "compromise doesn't deal with the issue -- it tries to hide it." Interviewed by Larry King the other night, Goldwater said the matter comes down to constitutional rights. But whatever his reasoning, his voice is an unexpectedly welcome one for Clinton. What the president needs most of all is to get the issue behind him so that it stops diverting attention from other matters of greater criticality to his political fortunes, and to the country.

Gays in the military was always going to be a contentious matter, but it is a particular thorn for Clinton. It comes in the context of the dark cloud of his own failure to serve in uniform and his comments about the military during the Vietnam War that hang ominously over all his relationships with the armed forces.

He visits an aircraft carrier, and accounts feature the openly contemptuous remarks of crew members; he goes to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day and the stories thereafter focus on the protests of veterans against him; most recently, an Air Force general is reported to have referred to his ultimate boss as "gay-loving . . . pot-smoking . . . draft-dodging [and] womanizing."

Such remarks about a superior are a clear violation of the military code, but the general in question happens to be a decorated Vietnam veteran and all that is happening is an Air Force investigation with a promised report soon. Military officers often have been shipped to nowhere overnight for less.

When President Harry S Truman gave five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur his walking papers for insubordination during the Korean War, he took a lot of heat for daring to challenge a deity.

But Truman was uninhibited in that action because, unlike Clinton, he himself was an Army combat veteran, though a much lowlier one as a World War I captain.

You have to wonder what might happen if Clinton were to be confronted with a MacArthur-like challenge, from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, for example. Powell has in fact openly disagreed with Clinton on gays in the military, but he is not the egomaniac that MacArthur was and is likely to swallow whatever decision is reached on the gays question.

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