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Civil Rights

Outing the Debate

An inside account of the struggle to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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Asking, telling: Gay-rights activists and gay veterans handcuffed themselves to the White House fence on November 15.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

N2K: Unlikely Champions for Gay Rights

Barack Obama was in an unusually surly mood when he climbed into a thickly armored limousine. It was April 19, and the president had just finished a high-spirited rally with Democratic financial titans in Los Angeles. His speech had been interrupted by gay-rights demonstrators frustrated that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military was still in place.

 

Obama did not like the allegation that he and his staff were deferring the issue. Indeed, the idea infuriated the man whose election had been hailed as a watershed moment for integration and inclusion. It implied that Obama, the most progressive president since Lyndon Johnson, was lying when he said publicly and repeatedly that he intended to end the ban once and for all. It implied that the commander in chief was being rolled by the military, which many gay-rights activists felt had outmaneuvered the president.

Seated in the car, painfully aware that his boss was angry, was Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, the White House point man on don’t ask, don’t tell, and the target of many activists’ ire. Obama uttered a curse. “Messina, I don’t understand these guys. What is it about what we are doing that they don’t get? If they want to protest, they should go protest someone who was against this.”

In the Senate, as Obama knew, the votes to end don’t ask, don’t tell just weren’t there yet. But he strongly believed that they would be, once the Pentagon had completed its internal reckoning with the change—a militarywide survey of attitudes and opinions about integrating gay troops that was due at year’s end. That study came out last week, and it reported that integration of openly gay service members would be much less of a challenge than opponents had argued. Now, even if the Senate fails to end the ban, the policy is likely to crumble under assault in the courts.

 

THE FREEDOM AGENDA

By the time Obama was elected, ending the ban had become the most pressing symbolic issue for the organized gay-rights community—even though the policy’s demise would affect at most a fraction of gay people. About 14,000 gay men and lesbians had been discharged, and some 65,000 were currently serving their country in silence.

As he campaigned in 2008, Obama repeatedly promised to end don’t ask, don’t tell. He reiterated that pledge in his 2010 State of the Union address, even as the military’s service chiefs sat stone-faced in front of him. In public, he seemed to be a victim of circumstance and process. In private, he was trying to move a mountain.

During his transition to the presidency, when Obama first discussed the subject with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whom he was courting to stay, Gates warned him that a quick reversal of the 1993 policy during a time of two wars would be difficult for the military culture and bureaucracy to take. But at his first meeting with Gates after Obama took office, the president raised the issue directly: “I want to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell, and I want your support,” he said, according to two officials briefed separately on the conversation.

Gates understood that it was an order, not a request. He responded by telling Obama how he had quietly worked to integrate gay case officers in the CIA in the early 1990s when he was the agency’s director under President George H.W. Bush. “But this is going to be different, Mr. President. We’re in the middle of two wars. We have to go about this very carefully,” Gates said. “I have real concerns with how it will work in the field.” (Gates would later repeat the CIA anecdote in public.)

 
Gates insisted on adhering to a schedule that activists deplored.

“So how do we do it?” was what Obama wanted to know. Gates told Obama he needed a process that would examine the issue from top to bottom, a process that would incorporate the views of as many service members as possible, a process thorough enough to inoculate the Defense Department against criticism that it ended the ban without carefully considering the consequences. Gates was also sending a subtle message: Executive action or court-imposed fiats would cause an open revolt among generals and admirals. The idea of getting the military on board appealed to Obama, and Gates committed himself to a process that would end don’t ask, don’t tell in a way that no future president could reverse.

The Defense secretary asked the president for time. He said he would work with Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, to devise a way to get it done. White House officials saw that Obama and Gates were deepening the trust in their relationship, but they were especially placated by the role given to Johnson, who they believed would hold Gates to his promise. (Johnson has been active in Democratic politics for years and served as a counsel to John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.) For a year, however, the Pentagon proposed no process; Gates was busy running two wars and working to reform the department at large.

This article appears in the December 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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