President Clinton, on being accused of weakness for his compromise policy on gays in the military, responded, "I am the first president who ever took on this issue. It may be a sign of madness, sir, but it is not a sign of weakness." We don't think the president has gone mad, but we wonder about some of his critics.
The fact is this compromise moves homosexual rights in the military quite far along. This was achieved without provoking bitter acceptance from the Joint Chief of Staffs, much less opposition. The president and the joint chiefs deserve credit for so successfully working out a difficult problem. Those who seem to have lost touch with reality are homosexuals and civil libertarians who demand the ultimate as well as homophobes and rigid conservatives still insisting on the flat ban on homosexuals that existed before the Sam Nunn plan of "don't ask, don't tell."
Some of the criticisms and questions directed at the joint chiefs in congressional hearings this week were the sort of nitpicking and micro-management that is Congress at its worst. There are ambiguities in any code of conduct. But the new code is "as workable" as what it replaces, which is the way Marine Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. put it.
Senator Nunn seems ready to go along with the Clinton-Joint Chiefs plan, which as we read it adds a very emphatic "don't snoop" to Mr. Nunn's two don'ts. He wants to codify the Pentagon's guidelines, which seems dubious. The Constitution is clear that Congress has this right ("The Congress shall have power to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces"), but why rush? Let the military have some experience with it first. Problems that aren't evident now may require refinements later.
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin says homosexuals will still be "more comfortable" pursuing a career outside the military. That is probably true for some homosexuals and probably not true for others. Someone can now serve in the military and maintain a private life with much less tension than before, and we predict that as the services see how little the change affects readiness, such tension will be reduced even more.
Are homosexuals still being treated differently and unfairly? Yes, they are. (Ideally, lifting the ban would be preferable.) Won't this unfairness ultimately be overturned by the courts? No, probably not. The judiciary has always been reluctant to interfere with the armed forces. As the Supreme Court once said, judges should observe "a healthy deference to legislative and executive judgments in the area of military affairs." The military has freely discriminated against blacks and women, for example. Both those groups achieved rights in the military incrementally (and not in court).
It is a history the gay community can reflect on with sadness -- and with optimism.