"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" – Stop Playing With Soldiers' Lives

Rich Tafel, Log Cabin Executive Director

January 17, 2000 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Gays in the military – it's back. The leaders of both parties have not said a word in years on this issue, and now only weeks from the beginning of the primary season it's front and center again. It has always been a political beach ball, with candidates batting it around to each other, pandering to various constituencies, with little regard for the soldiers that are affected or our country's national security. The result has been a policy in practice that has harmed a record number of the people it was supposed to help, and all signs point to continued recklessness to come.

It began in 1992. As the Democratic presidential candidates began jockeying for position, gay Democrats were divided among all the contenders except one – Bill Clinton. As a "new Democrat" who was Governor of Arkansas for a decade, his gay rights and AIDS record was abysmal or non-existent. But when he was on track for the nomination, gay Democrats needed something from him they could support. He refused to back a federal gay rights bill, and opposed gay marriage. So they came up with gays in the military. To them it was easy – they shared Clinton's general ignorance and antipathy for the military as an institution, and believed it was something that would take a stroke of a pen. The Republican Party played along by hosting the most rabidly anti-gay convention in history in 1992, and Clinton won a lopsided majority of the gay vote and raised millions in gay contributions to win the presidency.

With Democrats in control of the House, Senate and the White House, gay leaders expected the ban to be gone in a day. But when leading Democrats in Congress fought it, with conservative Republicans following their lead, it became clear that real political capital rather than light promises would be needed to make it happen. He wouldn't be needing the political support or money of gays for some time so Clinton caved on his promise very quickly, and with political cover from openly gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) drafted a Democratic compromise which would become "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue."

Clinton didn't understand or care about the military, nor had gay rights been a burning issue for him outside of fundraising and appealing for base constituency support when he needed it for something more important to him. The military, as expected, disregarded the spirit and in many cases the letter of the new policy. Clinton's administration – from top to bottom – stood by and did nothing for six years. As a result, a record number of servicemembers have been driven out of the military since 1993, running at rates higher than at any time previously.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was founded in the wake of "don't ask, don't tell," and each year it has issued detailed reports on how the policy in practice has gotten worse to the Pentagon and the White House, and each year they were largely ignored by both. As the 1996 presidential elections loomed, Clinton finally latched on to a federal employment non-discrimination bill – crafted in part to satisfy his objections – to distract from the military debacle and again raked in the gay money and support when he needed it. Later still, during the impeachment battle, he turned to the army of gay Democratic appointees in his administration to help him rescue himself. But the military policy sat there, continuing to ruin lives and pollute the military environment.

Now it is election time again, and the beach ball is back in the air. It was served up by First Lady Hillary Clinton, who had to do remedial courting of gay Democratic activists in New York for her Senate bid, when she announced that she believed her husband's policy had "failed." The president ended his long silence and jumped into the game, eager to help his wife's political career, commenting as an afterthought that "maybe" the policy was "out of whack." Then, the man who insists on being the main beach ball player of the moment – Vice President Al Gore – flailed out onto the court. After defending the policy for six years, Gore announced that he would overturn "don't ask, don't tell" if he is elected President. (Of course, there has been no discussion among any of these three about changing the policy now themselves, before all the gay money and votes have been counted.)

Gore's use of the issue has been particularly craven. Only three months earlier, he told the Advocate in a much-heralded interview that he would keep "don't ask, don't tell" firmly in place. Shaping his message with his likely GOP opponent in mind – the "compassionate conservative" Governor George W. Bush of Texas – Gore said he would preside over the Clinton policy with "more compassion." Gore's only competition for the Democratic nod – former Senator Bill Bradley – then promised to end the policy.

But when Gore went for the ball served up by the Clintons, under increasing pressure from Bradley, he had to swat it higher than anyone else. Without consulting even his own military advisors or the Pentagon, Gore scribbled out a statement announcing that he would have a "litmus test" in appointing a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No military leaders who didn't agree with Gore's new-found eagerness to have gays serve openly in the military would be considered. When top Pentagon leaders had to publicly rebuke his statement and yet again expose the Clinton administration's utter ignorance of the military institution and how it must be led, Gore quickly backtracked with patented Clinton double-speak, trying to claim he never said what everyone clearly heard. And his gay supporters are busy applauding his "courage" as they raise more money for him and the Democratic Party. As yet, we've heard no specifics on how Gore will do it, nor any hint that he knows how to do it. Without even mentioning gays in any way, the Republican National Committee was able to slam Gore in television ads immediately, criticizing the idea of having a litmus test of any kind for the most senior military appointments.

The Republican candidates, for their part, have either clawed at the ball themselves or been unsuccessfully trying to avoid getting drawn into the game. Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer have desperately waved their arms trying to get attention, saying that the old ban should be restored and gays should be driven out of the military and every other public institution, but they are languishing in single digits. Bush, Senator John McCain and Steve Forbes have all come out in favor of gays serving under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which they alternately say "is working" or they want to "make work." Bush and McCain have largely followed the recommendations of SLDN's annual reports, that ending the disconnect between the Commander-in-Chief and the military leadership, enforcing the policy as it is written and thereby ending the witch hunts and the investigations, would be an improvement for both the gay soldiers and the military as an institution. McCain, to his credit, at least showed he understands how any hypothetical changes would have to be implemented when he said on CBS "Face the Nation" that any military policy of this magnitude is the job of "presidents, not candidates."

But if the last six years have taught us anything, it's that as long as this is a beach ball game at election time and not a serious issue all the time, things will keep getting worse. And there is still the fact remains that "don't ask, don't tell" is a policy based on dishonesty being rewarded – something that fundamentally undermines the military code of honor.

Indeed, the Democrats around Gore are starting to hedge – a familiar exercise by now. The always loyally partisan Frank reminds gay donors and voters that there is no chance Gore or Bradley could keep their promise without a Democratic Congress. He then adds that even if the Democrats take back the House, we shouldn't expect the military issue to be a top priority, since hate crimes and an employment bill should come first. In other words, the beach ball is still in play. The only good news out of this ridiculous episode is that all of the top candidates in both parties agree that gays should be able to serve in the military. The bad news is that no one has stepped forward to put a decisive end to the political game that is being played with the lives of gay soldiers.