The gay and lesbian march on Washington next Sunday occurs on the 96th day of Bill Clinton's presidency. The news from that event--organizers hope for 1 million people--will eat into early assessments of the new President. This is fitting, since "gays in the military" will be remembered as the issue that ate Clinton's First 100 Days.
However, Clinton can't give the gays what they want--and what he promised. He has decided that the political price he is paying for trying to lift the ban is too high. So, to cut his losses, Clinton will cut loose his policy.
The Republicans faced a similar dilemma these last 12 years. They couldn't afford to "win" the abortion issue. Imagine what would have happened if the Republicans had passed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. GOP politicos were happy to get the votes of right-to-lifers, but dreaded the backlash that would follow an actual abortion prohibition. Pols know that it's always better to have the issue than the victory. Winners get complacent; losers get active, plotting revenge.
The Clintonians know that Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has the votes in the Senate to overturn anything the White House might tell the Pentagon to do. They also know that a quick appeal to the court of public opinion would not be productive. While many liberals see gay rights as just the next step in a progression of civil-rights empowerment that began with African-Americans four decades ago and extends today to women, Latinos and the disabled, many more Americans see varying sexual orientation as an affront to God's law. Clinton could make the case for gay rights in the spirit of the late Hubert Humphrey, but he shows few signs of having that kind of courage. During the campaign, Clinton was eager to rise on the principle of non-discrimination, but in office, he's not willing to fall on it.
Some say that the Book of Leviticus provides good reasons to oppose homosexuals in the military. But St. Mary's College law professor David A. Schleuter asks some hard legal questions, too. For example: What happens if a gay soldier alleges that sexual prejudice deprived him of a promotion and sues? What sort of remedies might a judge impose? Back pay? Compensatory promotion? Ridiculous, you might think. But remember, the public never voted for school busing and affirmative action--they were hatched out of the nest of the bureaucracy and the judiciary.
Clinton's nightmare is a steady stream of sensationalism about the new politically correct military pouring out over the next three years. He fears that the $600 toilet-seat story would be replaced by accounts of gay sensitivity training, sex harassment and survivor's benefits.
But Clinton promised to lift the ban! The gay and lesbian leaders who met with him in the Oval Office last Friday came away happy, reassured that he would issue an executive order completely lifting the ban by July 15.
So gay people are now holders of a Clinton promissory note. That's worth something, but to redeem it, gays will have to stand in line behind the folks waiting for their middle-class tax cut, Haitian immigration and 100,000 new cops on the street.
As with so many of his other promises, Clinton is "thinking anew." According to the Washington Times, the White House was so desperate for an out-of-town invitation this weekend that they cajoled the National Newspaper Assn., meeting in Boston, to start its convention a day early. A grateful President will address them, relieved to be 500 miles from the marchers.
With the rally out of the way, Clinton has three months to figure out how to lose. He'll fight the good fight against Sam Nunn, but the game is as rigged as the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series.
Shoeless Bill's best hope is, as always, the Republicans. Americans are generally tolerant. Republicans should remember that everyone has a friend or relative who is gay. As if to rub that point in, the current issue of the new gay magazine 10 Percent features an interview with John Schlafly, the recently out-of-the closet son of conservative activist Phyllis, conducted by Dee Mosbacher, the lesbian daughter of George Bush's commerce secretary. If the GOP overplays its hand--if it pulls another homophobic Houston in an effort to make hay on the gays in the military controversy--then Clinton can take his calculated dive on the gay ban and still be the best friend gays have.