Gay Activists v. the White House: The Inside Story

For 17 years, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has grabbed thousands of gay soldiers by their collars and thrown them out of the military. By this time next year, that policy will be gone. (Update: I should have written "most likely." I can't predict the future.)  Gay people will be openly serving in the United States Armed Forces. You might be forgiven for disbelieving that prediction, especially given the angry broadsides that gay rights activists are directing at the White House.
These activists believe that the administration -- or, specifically, the deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, is orchestrating a conspiracy to silence those wanting to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell quickly. This conspiracy theory received a boost earlier this week when Lt. Dan Choi, the army linguist who's going to be kicked out of the military because he is gay -- and the de-facto national spokesperson for DADT repeal -- joined five other soldiers chaining themselves in protest to the fence of the White House's North Lawn.

Unusually, the media was pushed back several hundred feet -- a breach of protocol. This gave rise to the notion, propagated by everyone from the Drudge Report to Politico, that the White House had a transparency problem. The Park Police and the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service scuffled over responsibility, and then the Park Police fessed up. They-a culpa. Their "rookie officer" made an error. 

Many gay rights activists aren't buying it. Last night, Lt. Choi tweeted: "Press Sec'y Gibbs was in park; park closed. Rookie cop? We got names. Stay tuned. Gibbs muzzle press. http://su.pr/1uFWJx"

I can report to you today that Gibbs was indeed in the park. He was on his way to a pre-scheduled lunch. He even took a piece of anti-DADT literature from a demonstrator. He went on his way. 

The idea that Robert Gibbs could call the Park Police Superintendent or command post and demand that the media be moved is absurd. Even if the Secret Service was in charge of the scene, a Gibbs request like that would immediately result in the notification of the director, who'd be on the phone to Rahm Emanuel in an instant wondering why a civilian was ordering his officers around. 

The idea that Gibbs would do this -- that there was somehow a compelling need to prevent the media from covering the protesters when just the night before a similar interruption at a DNC fundraiser in California received decent coverage -- is simply not grounded in reality.  First, what would have been the harm in letting the media closer? None. Would it have been a page one story? No. Would the White House have cared more about the protesters? No.  

The germ of this conspiracy theory is mistrust between a large group of vocal gay activists and the White House, with the Human Rights Campaign being stuck in the middle. HRC is seen by these activists as being too accommodationist and not aggressive enough.  

There are a few reasons why some gay activists don't trust Messina. One is historical. In 2002, Messina was Max Baucus's campaign manager when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's independent expenditure (IE) arm ran an incredibly provocative ad  against Conrad's Republican challenger, which gay rights groups condemned as homophobic.  As campaign manager, Messina wouldn't have had any say over the ad since the IE arm must not coordinate with the campaign; but the legend persists that he was the impresario behind it.

More recently, having been put in charge of the gay rights account by Rahm Emanuel, Messina told a group of gay rights activists that it would be hard to repeal the ban quickly during two active wars. The comment was slammed as a "Bush Talking Point," and an excuse for not acting expeditiously. In point of fact, Messina was passing along the view articulated by President Obama.

Messina and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel are also accused of slow-walking the repeal strategy because they're worried about culture wars. That is, they allegedly urged Congressional Democrats not to add language repealing DADT into the defense appropriations bill, and they counseled President Obama not to issue an executive order unilaterally ending the ban.

There is no mystery here. Repealing DADT is very popular. There is no political downside. So the argument that Messina and Emanuel think there'd be a political downside is untenable.   And Obama has said that he wants gays integrated into the military in the right way -- in a way that builds on a foundation of legitimacy that only the Pentagon brass can create. And the time frame for repealing the ban was determined on the basis of what Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen need in order to build that legitimacy.

That's not an answer that soldiers dismissed under Don't Ask, Don't Tell like to hear, and they've got every right to be angry. But it's a strategy that will repeal DADT in a way such that no subsequent president could reverse the ban by executive order. It will be permanent. The Pentagon is expected to present the findings of its internal study in September December, and the Senate will vote on a repeal either in the rump session of Congress late in 2010 or early in 2011. That's the track. It's getting done.

(Update:  I need to clarify that when I say there are no political considerations, I mean that no one thinks that Obama or Congress will get flack collectively. It's a majoritarian issue. But it is indisuptably true that in the Senate, a political coalition needs to be built. The Senate does not represent the majority will of the American people -- by design -- at times. So -- the timetable IS a political timetable. It's one designed to ensure (a) maximum buy-in from the Pentagon, which means that there will few solid/valid objections once the Pentagon's working group has completed its work and (b) the political space for politicians who are uncomfortable with the repeal to vote without worrying too much about backlash from voters in their more conservative states. In other words, it's a timetable designed to get the thing done. If the Senate doesn't get it done, the President will go to Plan B -- an executive order, or some other creative solution around the Congressional intransigence.  I'm not saying that the strategy is the quickest one they could have chosen -- far from it -- or the boldest. But it's definitely a strategy that is designed to repeal it, and repeal it properly. )

Is Messina the secret enemy of gays? Far from it. Messina was the staff member who convinced the military to start the process to end the gay ban; the staff member who orchestrated the compelling testimony of Gates and Mullen; the staff member who worked with the Pentagon to relax the rules until the ban is ended; the staff member who coordinated the drafting of the executive order preventing hospitals from banning gays from visiting their partners; the staff member who made sure that the HIV immigration ban was rescinded. And so on.

Are gay rights priority number one for Obama? No. Clearly not. He never said they would be. Does he have, among his close confidants, any close gay friends? I don't believe so, but I don't know for sure.

Does Obama favor gay rights, and do his actions support those beliefs? Yes. Is there a conspiracy inside the West Wing to block progress? I've found no evidence that there is.

Correction: Messina didn't work for Kent Conrad, but Max Baucus.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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