WASHINGTON -- During the long days of impasse in th Vietnam War, a soft-spoken senator from Vermont named George Aiken came up with a simple solution in 1966 to extricate the United States from the morass. "Declare victory," Aiken said, and get out."
That deft piece of advice, ignored by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time, would be wisely taken by President Clinton in the opportunity just presented him by the gay community's most outspoken member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, to cut his losses in the divisive controversy over gays in the military.
Frank, himself an openly declared homosexual, has called for a truce in the raging war of words over the issue. He proposes a formula whereby gays would be free to practice their lifestyle off duty and off military installations without fear of investigation, but would be obliged to keep their sexual orientation to themselves in word and deed when on duty.
This formula resembles but goes a step beyond the proposal of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia, a foe of Clinton's declared intention to lift the ban on gays in the military entirely. Nunn is backing an approach dubbed "don't ask, don't tell," whereby gays would be tolerated in the armed services as long as their conduct, on or off duty, did not open them to investigation as violators of the current ban on homosexuals in uniform.
Frank is proposing the compromise, he says, because it is probably the best that can be achieved from a Congress that will not produce the votes Clinton needs to support a complete lifting of the ban. "Reality says for an indefinite period lesbians and gay men are going to have to not discuss their sexuality," Frank says. "I regret that we can't move immediately to removal of the ban. I don't think the votes are there. And I don't think society's quite ready for it."
Clinton can take Aiken's advice by embracing the Frank formula as a victory in his fight to end discrimination against gays without claiming that it is a total victory. Frank has put himself out on a limb with many other gay community leaders by proposing what they consider slippage in Clinton's pledge as a presidential candidate last year. But the congressman is doing the new president an immense favor by taking the position and giving him a vehicle by which to extricate himself from the political morass in which he finds himself over the issue.
A measure of Frank's helping hand to Clinton can be seen in the comment about it by Congress' other openly declared homosexual and fellow Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Gerry Studds. "I don't think this is any time to raise the white flag," Studds said. "Rosa Parks did not ask to sit in the middle of the bus," he said of the black woman who successfully fought back-of-the-bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. With friends like Studds, Frank needs no enemies right now.
While Clinton is certain to be the target of similar barbs if he accepts the Frank compromise, it will give him an out from a complete political capitulation to Nunn, whose high-profile hearings featuring arguments against lifting the ban from retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and others didn't do Clinton any favors. The president can always argue that he is making progress on the issue but wants to reach a reasonable accommodation for now with all concerned.
The element of overarching importance for Clinton in the whole controversy is the way it is diverting public attention and concern from the business for which the voters elected him -- economic recovery and reform.
What he needs to do, rather than fighting over details, is get the issue of gays in the military off the front burner of his administration and move the country's focus back on that supposed centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
Frank's proposal can do that for Clinton if Nunn -- and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on Armed Services -- are willing to swallow it and stop beating Clinton's brains out on this very divisive matter.
They did not introduce the issue, however. Clinton did that himself, but he now has a chance to cool it off, if he invokes the old George Aiken formula.