WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's solution regarding gays in the military already had a name -- "don't ask, don't tell" -- long before it was, in fact, a policy.
And though they have been lobbying the White House fiercely behind the scenes, neither side in this historic controversy yet knows what the policy will mean to gay men and lesbians in uniform -- or to their commanding officers.
Under his policy, which Mr. Clinton promised to issue this month, will gay soldiers, sailors or aviators be allowed to acknowledge in private, social conversations on base that they are homosexual?
Will military investigations -- and discharges -- still be pursued on the basis of homosexual liaisons that occur off the base and out of uniform?
Will the policy encourage -- or even require -- soldiers to lie to their commanding officers about their sexual orientation?
Finally, will the Pentagon prevail in trying to get the president to sign off on a directive that retains the wording, "Homosexuality is incompatible with military service," language that gay leaders consider an odious insult?
These are the narrow but crucial questions Mr. Clinton and his top military advisers are wrestling over. Unable to reach a consensus so far, they have delayed an announcement.
"Are you kidding?" replied Robert Hattoy, an openly gay White House official, when asked about reports that the decision would come this week. "Not before the president goes to San Francisco [tomorrow]. There would be blood in the streets."
Mr. Hattoy clearly is expecting a version of "don't ask, don't tell" that gays will consider a betrayal. But another presidential adviser said privately that the president remained passionate on the issue of civil rights for gays -- and particularly wanted the "incompatible" language stricken.
The cadre of military officers lobbying to keep the ban and the gay activists on the other side share a perception about one aspect of this contentious issue: Both maintain that if Mr. Clinton chooses a murky middle ground, he risks pleasing no one -- and might even aggravate the problem.
"If he tries to split the baby, that ain't going to be a compromise," said Tim McFeeley, a prominent opponent of the ban on gays, in a reference to the story of Solomon in the Bible. "What it would do is kill the baby."
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony Burshnick vehemently opposes admitting gays to the service, but he agrees with Mr. McFeeley on this point.
'One extreme or the other'
"Any policy that is ambiguous and would send all these cases into court is no good," he said. "It really ought to be one extreme or the other."
The president, however, knowing that U.S. public opinion tends to be in the middle on this subject, has been searching since January for a position that the brass can live with -- but that also fulfills his unequivocal, campaign-year promise to lift the ban.
Perhaps that is possible, but the reckoning day for this issue has been a long time in coming.
Over the years, the military has offered evolving justifications for the ban. In the 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, Pentagon officials said gays were a security risk because they were easy targets for blackmail by Communists.
When gay pioneers such as Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam veteran, came out of the closet in 1975 to fight the ban publicly, they challenged some of the military's most fundamental assumptions about gay life.
If gays were open about their lives -- and proud of themselves -- how could they be blackmailed, they argued.
On July 31, 1991, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney conceded their point. In an exchange with Rep. Barney Frank at a House Budget Committee, Mr. Cheney characterized the notion of gays as a security risk was "a bit of an old chestnut."
By then, however, the military proponents of keeping the ban were using a different rationale. Openly admitting gays, they said, would undermine unit cohesion, morale and discipline.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summarized this view in a Jan. 11 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy: "The presence of gays in the military is detrimental to good order and discipline.
This view has been challenged by "Conduct Unbecoming," a book about the ban by acclaimed gay author Randy Shilts.
Mr. Shilts gleaned a startling fact from the Pentagon's official records on gays: In wartime -- when "good order and discipline" is most essential -- the military all but suspends enforcement of the gay ban. In war, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, what the officer corps cares about is not sexual orientation, but job performance. It is in peacetime that the military enforces the ban with a vengeance.
Nine days after his speech at Annapolis, General Powell would find himself reporting to a commander in chief whose aides had read Mr. Shilts' book -- and who had vowed for a year and a half to rescind the gay ban if elected president.
Mr. Clinton's public commitment to overturn the ban dates at least to August 1991 when New York Democratic Rep. Thomas J. Downey invited nine or 10 of his colleagues to his congressional office to meet with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Mr. Downey's intention was to show his fellow liberals that Mr. Clinton, preparing to run for the presidency as a centrist, was a man they could support.
"We covered a lot of issues, and at the end of the meeting I asked him if he would rescind the ban on gays in the military," recalled Mr. Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is probably the most well-known gay officeholder in the nation.
"He asked, 'Do you think it will be a big political storm?' and I demonstrated my wisdom and prescience by saying, 'No, not really,' " Mr. Frank added, making fun of his miscalculation.
Mr. Frank recalls Mr. Clinton as saying, "Good, because I said to a reporter yesterday that I'd lift [the ban]."
Two months later, on Oct. 14, Mr. Clinton met with about 20 wealthy leaders of the gay and lesbian community at the home of Dr. Scott Hitt in the Hollywood hills. The meeting was set up by Mr. Clinton's longtime friend, David Mixner, because Mr. Mixner feared that the 20 activists, all of whom are major political donors, were leaning toward supporting former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, a longtime ally of gay rights.
Ban like 'apartheid'
"He was spectacular," Mr. Mixner recalled. "On his own, without being asked, he compared the ban to apartheid."
At the time, Los Angeles was being wracked with street demonstrations by gays angry over the veto by California Gov. Pete Wilson of a state bill including gays in anti-discrimination statutes. Mr. Clinton was asked by one of those at the meeting, Diane Abbitt, if he would have signed the bill.
"Absolutely," Mr. Clinton replied.
She thanked the visitor from Arkansas but noted that politicians often made pledges like that in private and then refrained from repeating the pledge in public.
Mr. Clinton met this challenge, too. The next morning the activists woke to find that Mr. Clinton had reiterated his positions to the Los Angeles Times.
"After that," recalled Mr. Mixner, "our group endorsed him for president and was one of the first to do so."
Back in Washington, Mr. McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, was encouraged. He prepared a questionnaire for all the Democratic presidential candidates, asking them to take a pledge on a variety of issues, including lifting the ban on gays in the military.
Clinton's written pledge to gays
"As president, will you sign an executive order ending the Department of Defense's policy excluding qualified men and women from the armed forces simply because they are gay or lesbian?" the questionnaire asked.
All of the Democrats answered in the affirmative. Governor Clinton's answer was:
"Yes. I believe patriotic Americans should have the right to serve the country as a member of the armed forces, without regard to sexual or affectional orientation."
The questionnaire was made public in February 1992, but when the mainstream news media establishment didn't make a big issue of it, gay groups didn't either.
"Our goal, first and foremost, was for a Democrat to win the
election," Mr. McFeeley conceded candidly. "We didn't want to do anything to hurt Clinton."
In May, Mr. Clinton visited California again, and once again he made his views clear.
At a May 18 gay fund-raiser at the Palace Theater in Los Angeles, Mr. Clinton pledged to launch a "Manhattan Project" to deal with AIDS, said it was "elemental" that gays and lesbians ought to be able to serve in the armed forces and told his audience, "We can't afford to waste the capacities, the contributions, the hearts, the souls, the minds of gay and lesbian Americans."
Again, this speech, partly because it was delivered at night on West Coast time, received little attention in the national press. It did, however, register with veterans groups, which at their summer conventions last year passed resolutions in support of keeping the ban.
Nevertheless, it never became a major issue in the campaign. The Bush campaign never touched the issue, in part because of the criticism from liberals, Democrats and news media commentators that their August convention in Houston had an intolerant tone to it.
There it stayed, a dormant but emotional issue, waiting to be revisited.
Once Mr. Clinton was elected, it didn't take long.
On Nov. 4, the day after Mr. Clinton's victory, gay groups held a news conference in which they called on the president-elect to make good on his campaign promises.
Citing exit polls that showed Mr. Clinton carrying 72 percent of the gays and lesbians who voted, Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, "We formed a crucial voting bloc and helped elect a new president."
Exaggerating gay voting strengths but not gay hopes for the election, Gregory King, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, was even more blunt. "We are the Clinton campaign," he said at the time.
If Mr. Clinton was having second thoughts, they didn't show right away. On Nov. 10, a federal district judge in California ordered the Navy to reinstate Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, who challenged his dismissal over being gay.
The following day, Veterans Day, Mr. Clinton, in Little Rock, Ark., applauded the decision, saying, "The question here is simply status. Should people who have served their country with distinction -- many of them with battlefield ribbons -- and who have never had any kind of question about their conduct be booted out of the military?"
To candidate Clinton, to ask that question was to answer it.
Opposition breaks out
President-elect Clinton swiftly learned that for many influential Americans, the issue was hardly that clear-cut.
He also learned that some of those who had nominally supported him in the fall campaign, such as Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, were deeply opposed to lifting the ban -- even though they had said nothing before. And he discovered that Republicans were not so chary about criticizing this proposal once the campaign was over.
Some of Mr. Clinton's top advisers on this topic have groused that they feel a little sandbagged.
Others, however, concede privately that the president made some fundamental miscalculations:
* He underestimated the tremendous hostility within the armed services for lifting the ban.
* He didn't realize initially how singularly ill-positioned he was to issue an unpopular order, given his lack of military service and the controversy surrounding his attempts to stay out of uniform during Vietnam.
* He also didn't realize that despite their opposition, the military brass are loyal officers who will carry out orders -- even ones they don't like. But the commander in chief has to give the order.
Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers maintains that Mr. Clinton couldn't have acted too decisively -- that Congress would have stopped him. Instead, he instructed the generals to draw up a plan to open the services to gays in a way they could accept.
Whether that works remains to be seen.
Some old friends, however, think the president simply should have stuck to his guns.
"He flubbed it," said Mr. McFeeley. "He's cast his lot with those people in the military who are bigoted. He's not going to win them over. . . ."
"If he articulates a principle -- and believes in it -- he will gain the public's support," he added. "That's what history shows."