Jesse, you're a bigot


The Senate has confirmed Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vote was not close, but closer than it should have been, 58-31. Almost all of Ms. Achtenberg's opponents voted "nay" because she is a lesbian.

A few may not have. Several said in Senate debate they really objected to her views and/or her efforts to withhold United Way funds from the Boy Scouts until they accepted homosexuals. But Sen. Jesse Helms, who led the fight against the nomination, made it clear, perhaps inadvertently, what this fight was all about. Before the Senate debate began, he said he was opposed to Ms. Achtenberg "because she is a damned lesbian and I am not going to put a lesbian into a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine."

We do. The senator from North Carolina is clearly a bigot by almost any definition of that word. We are not surprised at his crusade against the nomination. We are not surprised at the speech and vote against her by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, either. He clearly relishes the idea of casting the issue of homosexuality in partisan terms. We suspect his expectation of making political capital out of this is mistaken. Most Americans have come to believe that people's private lives are their own business and none of the government's.

Sen. Sam Nunn voted for Ms. Achtenberg. The conservative Georgia Democrat indicated early this year that he is aware of the changing times. He proposed that the Pentagon take a new look at its ban on homosexuals in the armed services. He did not then and has not yet gone so far as to agree with President Clinton that the ban be dropped altogether. But he did offer as a compromise a policy he calls "don't ask, don't tell." If homosexual service men and women kept their private lives private, the military would stop prying into those private lives.

That is a better policy than the traditional one under which the military investigated suspects and discharged those it "outs," so to speak. This policy is a waste of time, money and personnel and often results in well-qualified careerists being lost to the services. An even better compromise than Senator Nunn's has been suggested by Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts and a homosexual. His policy would allow gay service men and women to follow their lifestyles off base and off duty without fear of exposure or discharge. We believe President Clinton, Senator Nunn, the Pentagon and the gay and lesbian civil rights movement could live with this.

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