WASHINGTON -- Facing open criticism from allies inside and outside the government, the White House sought yesterday to erase the impression that President Clinton would consider separating troops by sexual orientation.
Mr. Clinton said his assertion during a news conference Tuesday that he would not rule out restrictions on the deployment of homosexual soldiers did not represent a change of heart. He and his aides said he was merely keeping an open mind in anticipation of a Pentagon report recommending how best to carry out his pledge to allow homosexuals to serve.
But Mr. Clinton had never before publicly entertained the idea, and his comments Tuesday, in response to questions at a news conference, took some of his colleagues and advisers by surprise.
Bob Hattoy, a White House aide who gained national attention when Mr. Clinton selected him for a prime-time speech on AIDS at the Democratic National Convention, said in an interview yesterday that he "almost started crying" when he heard Mr. Clinton's remarks.
Mr. Hattoy likened the notion of limited duty assignments for gay service members to "restricting gays and lesbians to jobs as florists and hairdressers" in civilian life.
Mr. Hattoy, who is infected with the AIDS virus, also criticized the administration for its handling of Congress and the Pentagon. "We haven't been as good as we could have been in managing the issue, the response and the politics of all this," said Mr. Hattoy, who is associate director for presidential personnel. "We've let Sam Nunn and the Pentagon drive this issue, and that's what's gotten us into the fix we're in."
Senator Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports the current ban on homosexuals in the military. The committee begins hearings on the issue on Monday.
Mr. Clinton defended his remarks on a CBS News program Wednesday night, saying that he would oppose any military proposals that were discriminatory but said he would review whatever suggestions the Pentagon made.
Homosexual rights advocates who have advised the White House have condemned the president's comments, saying they fear Mr. Clinton may be softening his campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military in the face of stiff opposition from the armed services.
"Mr. President, do not negotiate our freedom away," said David B. Mixner, a California fund-raiser who was a senior Clinton campaign adviser on gay issues and is a friend of the president. In remarks he is to present to the Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas tomorrow, Mr. Mixner said: "Segregation is morally repugnant to us and we will never ever accept segregation as a sign of progress."