There is no political topic that makes the Clinton administration seem like ancient history more than gay rights.
Friday's release of a trove of White House papers from the Clinton library, coming at the conclusion of a week in which a pair of court decisions cleared the way for legal same-sex marriage in another dozen states, depicts the last Democratic presidency as even more of a relic.
The big debate at the start of Bill Clinton's first term was whether the new president would order the military to end its long-standing policy banning gays, and amid a bipartisan backlash, Clinton struck a compromise resulting in the policy–now infamous in some quarters–of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Among some 10,000 pages of documents that were posted online were hundreds of pages of legal memos on the proposed policy, as senior officials in the Justice Department weighed whether the new protocol would withstand legal challenges.
The documents also include 34 eye-opening pages of handwritten notes from a White House meeting during the first days of the administration in which Vice President Al Gore and Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, debated along with other Pentagon officials changing the ban.
Powell, as the president's chief military adviser, argued for keeping the ban in place. "Homo[sexuality] is a problem for us," he said, according to the handwritten notes. He pointed out that "sodomy" was banned by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. An "absolute right to privacy" for soldiers in such close quarters, Powell said, "simply does not exist."
He also listed AIDS as a concern in the military's policy toward gays, and he said officers would have to decide whether they could force straight soldiers to live with gay soldiers if the policy was changed. He noted that after desegregation of the military, white soldiers could not object to rooming with black soldiers but that male and female soldiers could not live together.
The parents of young soldiers, Powell said, were also "concerned about forced association and immaturity of 18-year-old" service members.
Most notably, Powell rejected the suggestion that the debate over gays in the military was a civil rights issue. The "comparison with blacks," he said, "is off-base" because race is a "benign characteristic."
A starred section of the notes indicates Powell's possible contribution to history: A "possible solution," he said, was that "we stop asking."
After much debate and dissent, that would be the policy of the United States for the next 18 years. Ultimately, it was a Democratic president that the Republican Powell endorsed who succeeded in persuading Congress to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and allow gays to serve openly in the military for the first time.
Powell told Politico in an email on Friday that he wanted Clinton to hear the views of the military in the meeting and noted that "the real issue was congressional opposition" at the time.
On the question of whether the debate was a civil rights issue, Powell wrote:
“I did not think they were equivalent; although both were discriminatory. The armed force[s] to do their job have to do things that are discriminatory, e.g. capital punishment for walking off the job.”
Powell now supports the policy of allowing gays to serve openly, and he said in 2012 that he has no objections to same-sex marriage.
In the meeting, other military leaders voiced opposition to changing the clear-cut ban, while Gore spoke up for a view that would become largely undisputed over the next 20 years: Being gay was not a choice, but according to science, it was a "predisposition" for most.