Clinton, Truman, Obama and Gays in the Military

President Obama tried to reassure gay leaders last night that he was still with them on eliminating the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy. His press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said that it would be gone by the time that Obama sees reelection. At this point, I take them at their word, but what's interesting is that two Democratic presidents have now stumbled on this issue, showing the gap between campaign promises and what's at least perceived to be political reality. A third Democratic president offers a better way.

Remember how we got DADT in the first place. Bill Clinton vowed to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military. But when he got to Washington, he hoped to put the issue aside, as Obama has done, so he could concentrate on his economic and health-care agendas. Democrats like Sam Nunn, who opposed the new president's policy, forced the issue as did other critics who offered the old saws about nondiscrimination being bad for unit cohesion, etc., etc.--arguments that now appear thankfully dated. DADT was the compromise position chosen by the Clinton administration to stave off critics on the left and right. It represented a modest change from the ask-and-discriminate position that was the norm beforehand. But it was obviously a long way from a ban on discrimination, as evidenced by the numbers of homosexuals who continue to be discharged simply because of their sexuality.

Obama's miscues have been different. He vowed to get rid of don't-ask-don't-tell. But this time it's gay-rights advocates who are holding the president's feet to the fire. It seems to me Obama has the political space to get rid of the policy now. It's not that politically onerous, even with his very full agenda. The political atmosphere is one where tolerance is on the march. Gay marriage, once the province of a few thinkers like my colleague and former boss, Andrew Sullivan, is now reality in a growing number of jurisdictions, something that was unthinkable in 1993.

If you think about Harry Truman ending the ban on racial discrimination, you see what real political courage is like and why finessing something like this may be more trouble than it's worth. It's hard to fathom now the political risks that Truman took. He ended the ban on racial discrimination in the military in the summer of 1948 while running against Strom Thurmond and Thomas Dewey and Henry Wallace in a country where Jim Crow was institutionalized, where Democrats depended on the South, and where millions of Americans had just served in World War II and had a more personal familiarity with he military. What Obama's carefully avoiding seems pathetically easy by comparison. Why drag it out? There's no indication that the military will do anything but salute smartly and carry out the president's orders. Will Democrats in marginal districts fall because of this? I doubt it. If they oppose the president, they can still oppose him.

July 26 will be the 61st anniversary of the executive order against racial discrimination that Truman signed. It's not a bad day for Obama to do the same. And if he wants to take another page from Truman, he could appoint a commission to oversee the implementation of his order like Truman did. Unlike Clinton and Obama, Truman was the Democratic president who understood that there was really no way to finesse an issue like this if it's what you believe. You just have to do it.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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