WASHINGTON -- He set out on his crusade talking of human rights and fundamental fairness. He ended it six months later speaking of half-steps and pragmatism.
On the issue of gays in the military, Bill Clinton went in with the best of intentions and came out with the worst of embarrassments. And while much remains unsettled after a bruising half-year of controversy, this much seems clear: Mr. Clinton's policy would mean a small advance for the countless homosexuals who serve in the military, but almost none for what organized gay groups consider the broader cause of homosexual rights.
For himself, the best Mr. Clinton may be able to hope for is that most voters will forget, if not forgive, the way he seemed to handle the matter. "We just wish this issue would go away," a senior White House official confided only hours before Mr. Clinton announced his "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" compromise.
Mr. Clinton had said from the outset that his first concern was members of the armed forces who were willing to keep their homosexuality to themselves. During the years of the ban, these individuals told daily lies, faked romances, even arranged sham marriages to avoid detection and discharge.
Under the Clinton policy, their lives may be improved. They will still live in a closet, perhaps, but that closet is at least a little more spacious and a little more secure. Homosexuals who want to serve won't be forced to lie when they fill out their enlistment forms, and they are slightly more protected from investigation.
While they are still vulnerable if they tell anyone they are homosexual, their commanding officers may no longer initiate investigations without "credible evidence." A single appearance in a gay rights parade, or a single visit to a gay bar would not represent such evidence, though a pattern of such acts would.
To prevent commanding officers from conducting "witch hunts," the rules also direct them to consider "scarce resources" before expending time and manpower on an investigation. Nor should they act "based on rumor, suspicion or capricious allegations."
"This is an end to the witch hunts that sought to ferret out the individuals who served their country well," Mr. Clinton declared.
Few leaders of gay groups were cheering those words. At the outset of the Clinton administration, they had declared their hopes for a new era of progress in gay rights.