WASHINGTON -- In his news conference in the Rose Garden the other day, President Clinton couldn't seem to duck fast enough when asked two questions about his plan to lift the ban on gays in the military. His quick shuffles underscored how well he understands how his own elevation of the issue at the outset of his presidency has intruded in a detrimental way on other key elements of his domestic agenda.
When a reporter asked his reaction to the startling testimony of Marine Corps Col. Fred Peck before the Senate Armed Services Committee that his son is homosexual but he still opposed lifting the ban, the president said only that he found all the testimony "quite moving and straightforward," and that he still thought the test on continued service "ought to be conduct." He then cut off an effort to have him elaborate by snapping: "You know what my position is. I have nothing else to say about it."
A few minutes later, when another reporter asked him whether he agreed with retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf that gays in uniform should practice celibacy, Clinton sharply replied only that he supported "the present code of military conduct and I'm waiting for the Pentagon to give me their recommendations."
These very brief answers came in notable contrast to his outspoken defense of gays in the military in the 1992 presidential campaign and in his declaration after the election that he would move to lift the ban on them. Only when that disclosure raised a firestorm of protest within the military and from Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn did he limit his immediate action to ordering that individuals no longer be asked about their sexual orientation until completion of a Pentagon study on how to proceed.
Since then, the issue has been on the front burner in terms of public discussion and controversy. Clinton also demonstrated his distress over its prominence by revealing in an interview with Washington Post reporters that he had had a study made of his own allocation of time in his first 100 days in office, and found he had spent only 2 1/2 hours on the matter of gays in the military.
By contrast, he said, the study indicated he had spent about 40 percent of his time at his desk on the economy and health care and 25 percent on national security and foreign policy, so that the impression that the gays-in-the-military issue was in any way dominating his schedule was way off base.
But the question is not how many hours Clinton has actually clocked in discussion of this matter. The question is how his decision to inject it into the public consciousness so early and so emphatically triggered the whole debate, when his clear intent had been to focus almost single-mindedly on the issue on which he was elected -- righting the economy and getting the country back on "the right track."
Now the president obviously has concluded that his best tactic is to dummy up on the whole gays issue and try to refocus the nation's attention on those tasks. But with Nunn on Capitol Hill doing his utmost to keep the issue front and center with high-visibility hearings, Clinton has his work cut out for him.
As a young president who so often is compared with John F. Kennedy, Clinton would have been well-served to remember an anecdote about Kennedy as president-elect when he also decided to make a decision guaranteed to draw much criticism. Planning to nominate his brother Robert to be his attorney general, he was asked by an aide how he hoped to get the choice past critics who would charge nepotism. Kennedy said he would wait until the wee hours, then open the front door at his Georgetown house, stick his head out and whisper: "It's Bobby."
Kennedy, in fact, made the announcement in the usual fashion and caught a lot of flak for it. In time, though, Robert Kennedy's performance in his brother's Cabinet won wide praise. Clinton can only hope that his own early and bold announcement on gays in the military will work out as well.
If not, he will have only himself to blame for the attention that this diversionary issue continues to get -- even if he spent only 2 1/2 hours on it in his first 100 days.