Crucial details postpone Clinton reply to gay ban Military, gay leaders fight but agree: Clear policy, not ambiguity, is needed

July 04, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's solution regarding gays in the military already had a name -- "don't ask, don't tell" -- long before it was, in fact, a policy.

And though they have been lobbying the White House fiercely behind the scenes, neither side in this historic controversy yet knows what the policy will mean to gay men and lesbians in uniform -- or to their commanding officers.

Under his policy, which Mr. Clinton promised to issue this month, will gay soldiers, sailors or aviators be allowed to acknowledge in private, social conversations on base that they are homosexual?

Will military investigations -- and discharges -- still be pursued on the basis of homosexual liaisons that occur off the base and out of uniform?

Will the policy encourage -- or even require -- soldiers to lie to their commanding officers about their sexual orientation?

Finally, will the Pentagon prevail in trying to get the president to sign off on a directive that retains the wording, "Homosexuality is incompatible with military service," language that gay leaders consider an odious insult?

These are the narrow but crucial questions Mr. Clinton and his top military advisers are wrestling over. Unable to reach a consensus so far, they have delayed an announcement.

"Are you kidding?" replied Robert Hattoy, an openly gay White House official, when asked about reports that the decision would come this week. "Not before the president goes to San Francisco [tomorrow]. There would be blood in the streets."

Mr. Hattoy clearly is expecting a version of "don't ask, don't tell" that gays will consider a betrayal. But another presidential adviser said privately that the president remained passionate on the issue of civil rights for gays -- and particularly wanted the "incompatible" language stricken.

The cadre of military officers lobbying to keep the ban and the gay activists on the other side share a perception about one aspect of this contentious issue: Both maintain that if Mr. Clinton chooses a murky middle ground, he risks pleasing no one -- and might even aggravate the problem.

"If he tries to split the baby, that ain't going to be a compromise," said Tim McFeeley, a prominent opponent of the ban on gays, in a reference to the story of Solomon in the Bible. "What it would do is kill the baby."

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony Burshnick vehemently opposes admitting gays to the service, but he agrees with Mr. McFeeley on this point.

'One extreme or the other'

"Any policy that is ambiguous and would send all these cases into court is no good," he said. "It really ought to be one extreme or the other."

The president, however, knowing that U.S. public opinion tends to be in the middle on this subject, has been searching since January for a position that the brass can live with -- but that also fulfills his unequivocal, campaign-year promise to lift the ban.

Perhaps that is possible, but the reckoning day for this issue has been a long time in coming.

Over the years, the military has offered evolving justifications for the ban. In the 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, Pentagon officials said gays were a security risk because they were easy targets for blackmail by Communists.

When gay pioneers such as Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam veteran, came out of the closet in 1975 to fight the ban publicly, they challenged some of the military's most fundamental assumptions about gay life.

If gays were open about their lives -- and proud of themselves -- how could they be blackmailed, they argued.

On July 31, 1991, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney conceded their point. In an exchange with Rep. Barney Frank at a House Budget Committee, Mr. Cheney characterized the notion of gays as a security risk was "a bit of an old chestnut."

By then, however, the military proponents of keeping the ban were using a different rationale. Openly admitting gays, they said, would undermine unit cohesion, morale and discipline.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summarized this view in a Jan. 11 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy: "The presence of gays in the military is detrimental to good order and discipline.

This view has been challenged by "Conduct Unbecoming," a book about the ban by acclaimed gay author Randy Shilts.

Mr. Shilts gleaned a startling fact from the Pentagon's official records on gays: In wartime -- when "good order and discipline" is most essential -- the military all but suspends enforcement of the gay ban. In war, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, what the officer corps cares about is not sexual orientation, but job performance. It is in peacetime that the military enforces the ban with a vengeance.

Nine days after his speech at Annapolis, General Powell would find himself reporting to a commander in chief whose aides had read Mr. Shilts' book -- and who had vowed for a year and a half to rescind the gay ban if elected president.

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