WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday he was "very close" to striking a compromise allowing gays in the military, but said he didn't believe that the Pentagon's conduct code -- which bars sodomy -- needed revision to accommodate the change.
His remarks, which dismayed some gay leaders, signaled a retreat from his earlier pledge to lift the ban entirely by July 15. Instead, Mr. Clinton said he was willing to settle for a proposal that would allow homosexuals to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation secret while on duty.
"I think we're very close to a compromise along those lines," Mr. Clinton told a questioner during a Rose Garden appearance on CBS. "We are trying to work this out so that our country does not appear to be endorsing a gay lifestyle, but we accept people as people and give them a chance to serve if they play by the rules."
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts are the two key congressional Democrats pushing such a compromise.
Mr. Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposes lifting the ban but has said he could support allowing gays to serve so long as they remained closeted both on and off duty.
Mr. Frank, one of two openly gay congressmen, said last week that gays in the military should keep their sexual orientation private while on duty but that a homosexual lifestyle away from work should not be grounds for discharge.
"The president's remarks are not helpful," said David Smith of the Campaign for Military Service, a gay advocacy group that wants the ban removed. "The compromises being discussed sustain an atmosphere of prejudice, and we oppose them."
Defense officials said the military was drafting a compromise likely to be less restrictive than Mr. Nunn's but not as liberal as Mr. Frank's.
But even if a compromise is struck, Mr. Clinton hinted at the next hurdle looming on the horizon as he seeks to implement the controversial policy change.
"My view is, people should be judged on their conduct," Mr. Clinton said. "I have not called for any change in the uniform code of conduct."
The president was referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Since 1950, the code has barred sodomy -- any time and anywhere, heterosexual or homosexual -- by members of the military.
Article 125 of the code prohibits "unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex or with an animal," and bars both anal and oral sex. Some types of sodomy also remain illegal in 26 states.
One Pentagon official, who declined to be named, said the code "would be severely weakened" if it remained unchanged and gays were allowed to serve in the military.
"The only way they can comply with the UCMJ is to stay celibate," this Air Force officer said. "If we allow gays in the military without changing the code, we're formalizing hypocrisy."