Gore reverses on requiring generals to back gay policy

Litmus test retracted

aide also causes problem


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Vice President Al Gore backtracked last night on comments he made in a debate Wednesday when he said he would require any appointee to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to agree in advance to let gays to serve openly in the military.

"I did not mean to imply that there should ever be any kind of inquiry into the personal political opinion of the officers in the U.S. military," Gore told reporters at a quickly assembled news conference in Des Moines on last night after questions began mounting about his intent.

At a debate in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, the vice president said he would require such a litmus test.

"I would insist before appointing anybody to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that that individual support my policy, and yes, I would make that a requirement," Gore said.

His remarks yesterday put him in line with his opponent for the Democratic nomination for president, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Bradley has also said that current law should be changed to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military. But when asked in Wednesday's debate about a litmus test on the issue for his appointees to the Joint Chiefs, he said that, if he were elected, he would expect military leaders that he appointed to obey his orders.

More so than in any other presidential campaign, Democrats are seeking the support of gays this year, particularly in California and New York where there are many gay voters, and where a very significant number of delegates will be chosen in primaries March 7. But homosexuality is still a sensitive issue in many areas of the country, and support for having gays serve in the military could hurt Gore in the South in the general election if he became the nominee.

Gore's public retraction -- his press secretary, Chris Lehane, called it a "clarification" -- came within an hour of his attempt to clear up another campaign embarrassment, this one fostered by his campaign manager, Donna Brazile.

Brazile had said in an interview that Republicans used blacks such as Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for photo opportunities but did not really care about them. Gore called Powell last night and told reporters that he had "reaffirmed my respect" for the general. He refused to say whether he had apologized.

Gore said yesterday that he had been misheard Wednesday. "That is not what I meant to convey -- that's what you heard," he told reporters here in the corner of a high school gymnasium after a pep rally. Even so, his remarks Wednesday night seemed unequivocal. Asked if he would tolerate dissent among the top officers, he said, "Of course."

Gore's remarks had been widely criticized by military leaders and former military officials. Even in his own campaign, there was reaction to Gore's remarks yesterday. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran, said commanders of small, specialized units should be allowed to choose members without the hindrance of broad policies.

The Gore campaign has been going after black voters and homosexual voters, and Gore's backtracking last night on the litmus test and on Brazile's comments suggested that the campaign had perhaps gone too far.

There was an odd confluence of these two episodes in the person of Powell, one of the most popular figures in America. He objected in 1993 to President Clinton's attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military, which resulted in the compromise of the "don't ask, don't tell policy." Powell did not comment on Gore's suggestion Wednesday on the litmus test. But he did respond to Brazile's comments, sending a note to Gore that he had been "disappointed and offended" by them.

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