WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's "honorable compromise" on the issue of gays in the military demonstrates as much as anything his talent for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Although the policy recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and accepted by him is a considerable pullback from his campaign promise to lift the ban entirely on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, Clinton couched his acceptance of it in terms of a welding of "principle and practicality" in the face of stiff opposition in the military and in Congress to lifting the ban.
While citing studies that he said indicated no past damage to military "unit cohesion" by the presence of gays in uniform, Clinton nevertheless bowed to the stated fears of military and some congressional leaders, such as Sen. Sam Nunn, by obliging gays to keep their sexual preference to themselves or invite "a rebuttable presumption" of misconduct.
At the time Clinton announced his intention to lift the ban, he stipulated his view that behavior should be the yardstick by which any member of the armed forces should be judged under the uniform code of military conduct. He repeated that position in disclosing the new policy. But the critical issue is what constitutes misconduct; most gays who believe their lifestyle is legitimate and straights who see it as aberrational are worlds apart on the matter.
Once again Bill Clinton has found it necessary to trim back a campaign position to accommodate the political realities. He learned from Nunn almost at the outset of the debate that if he tried to railroad a complete lifting of the ban through, Congress would reverse him so emphatically that any veto attempt would be overridden. With this policy, the president hopes to avoid that circumstance, but it is far from clear that Congress won't reject even this compromise.
The new policy amounts essentially to the interim plan that went into effect when Clinton first announced his intention to lift the ban and called on Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to produce a report on how to implement it. Recruits are not asked about their sexual preference and can continue to serve as long as they are not guilty of misconduct.
But the latest refinement says that if, once in uniform, they acknowledge they are gay, that will be cause to discharge them, with the caveat that they will have an opportunity to take issue with the "presumption" that by being gay, they will violate the military code of conduct in their personal lives.
By specifically declaring that any "unsuitable conduct" committed "at all times in all places" will be cause for discharge, the new policy seems to reject the compromise proposal of Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, one of Congress' two avowed homosexuals, that would have permitted gays to pursue the gay social lifestyle publicly off base.
However, the Associated Press has quoted White House officials as saying gays could patronize gay bars or take part in gay marches as long as they did not engage in public displays of affection toward members of their own sex.
Clinton in his speech to senior military officers called the policy "a real step forward" but he was well aware that it constituted a retreat from his earlier more categorical position against the ban on gays.
He cast his decision in terms that will appeal to many outside the gay community -- that while "as president of all the American people, I am pledged to protect and promote individual rights . . . as commander-in-chief, I am pledged to protect and advance our security."
And he made a point of saying he was defending individual, not group, rights -- a way of saying he was not siding with any of the gay protest groups whose tactics cause discomfort to many heterosexual Americans.
But once again the president finds himself caught between ambitious and categorical campaign rhetoric and the hard reality of governing, and having to roll back.
In the current climate of doubt about his leadership, he may not benefit much from striking a compromise -- though compromise is said to be the prime art of politics.