WASHINGTON — Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and once a seaman in the U.S. Coast Guard, knows better than most how to steer a middle course through treacherous political shoals.
From his position at the helm of the Senate panel and at the center of the swirling debate over gays in the military, Nunn is purposefully guiding his committee and the Pentagon toward a compromise that will soothe the military, stymie the Clinton Administration and pique gay and lesbian activists, who have called Nunn's compromise a pretty package in which to wrap discrimination.
Under Nunn's proposal, known in shorthand as "don't ask/don't tell," the Pentagon would stop questioning new members of the armed services about their sexual orientation and allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the armed forces as long as they do not reveal their homosexuality to colleagues or commanders.
It is not yet clear whether Nunn will be able to make that the core of a compromise between the White House and the military, as he clearly hopes. But, by assembling an increasingly formidable array of testimonials from Persian Gulf War heroes, a Marine colonel who is the father of a gay son and others, Nunn has managed to increase significantly the risk that the President will face if he tries to lift the military's longstanding ban against open homosexuality in its ranks.
Administration officials have insisted that they are not being steamrollered by Nunn's tactics. As Nunn prowled around Navy vessels Monday asking sailors what they think of sleeping next to gays and showering with them, Clinton told an audience in Cleveland that he rejects the "don't ask/don't tell" proposal.
"I just believe that there ought to be a presumption that people ought to be able to serve their country unless they do something wrong," Clinton said. "What I think we're about is acknowledging people's right . . . to be judged by what they do. I hope my position will prevail."
Still, with Congress legally in a position to overturn any Clinton order with legislation, the President's stance seems to be getting more difficult by the day.
Nunn, an avowed opponent of Clinton's plan, told sailors Monday that, if Clinton proceeds with his plan to permit openly gay men and lesbians in the military, he and other opponents will try to overturn a presidential order by writing the prohibition into law.
That is a prospect that Administration officials view with serious trepidation. Representatives of gay activist groups said they believe that an up-or-down vote on a law excluding gays from the military would be very close. If Clinton vetoed such legislation, he would have sufficient Senate support to sustain a veto, his advisers agree. But it is not clear that Clinton would want to press his case against a serious congressional challenge led by Nunn and backed by the dramatic testimony of Nunn's handpicked witnesses.
The alternative, one Clinton adviser said, is equally bad. If Clinton accepts Nunn's compromise--in effect, the Georgia senator's opening position in the hearings--"it would be written as a defeat for Clinton," the Administration official said.
Thomas Stoddard, a gay activist who directs the Campaign for Military Service, made clear that Clinton's gay and lesbian allies would not soon forgive him for capitulating to Nunn.
"If the Administration adopts the 'don't ask/don't tell' line, the President will have withdrawn his commitment to end discrimination in the military," Stoddard said. "Nunn's position is merely a nice way of packaging discrimination. It continues the existing policy, which in virtually all circumstances, leads to the discharge of lesbians and gays on the basis of rumors, innuendo and retaliation from colleagues."
Stoddard said he remains confident that Clinton will be true to his word. But he acknowledged that Nunn has shrewdly read the political mood on the controversy and is exploiting it adeptly.
"Everybody wants an out," Stoddard said. "Some in the Administration want an out; many senators want an out. And Sen. Nunn wants to give the impression of opposing discrimination while perpetuating this policy at its heart. That's what 'don't ask/don't tell' does."
For now, sources said, Defense Secretary Les Aspin has been unmoved by what one official called Nunn's "parade of worthies."
"I don't think they're changing our calculations," one senior Pentagon official said of Nunn's hearings. "It seems Nunn has gone from trying to maintain the appearance of Solomonic hearings to determine what's best to outright advocacy hearings for his position. It looks like 'don't ask/don't tell' may be gaining ground in the Senate, and it may be giving heart to those who oppose lifting the ban. But it's not clear that it will rule the day over here."
Indeed, gay activists and Administration officials are citing a shift in public opinion polls as an indication that Nunn's hearings are failing to bring the American public to his view. In late January, an ABC News poll showed that Americans were split, 47% to 47%, over whether homosexuals should serve in the military. Asked the same question in late April, 54% of those responding said homosexuals should serve and 44% disagreed.
In fact, one gay activist predicted that Nunn's advocacy of the "don't ask/don't tell" proposal may ultimately hasten the demise of the Pentagon policy that Clinton has vowed to dismantle.
"This is a real sign that the arguments on the other side are crumbling," said Eric Rosenthal, political director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.