As Yogi Berra would say, it's deja vu all over again. Watching the unfolding debate over Gen. Peter Pace's comments on gays in the military, I started thinking of how President Bill Clinton was first pressured to formulate the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy - a policy Hillary Clinton has now said should be repealed. (While campaigning in Iowa on Jan. 27.)
The issue had been simmering throughout the first Clinton campaign, but it came to a head on Nov. 11, 1992 -- Veterans' Day. I was on duty in Little Rock. Clinton had just been elected and was formulating his cabinet, but he was still governor of Arkansas. In the hopes of asking the president-elect about his campaign commitment to gays in the military, I went over to the State House to watch him salute the armed forces.
On the rope line that day, I asked: "How are you going to handle the opposition of the military to your position on gays and lesbians in the military?"
Clinton didn't hesitate.
"If people who have served our country with distinction, many of them with battlefield ribbons and who have never had any kind of question about their conduct, can be booted out of the military, that is the issue, and I think there are ways that we can deal with this that will increase the comfort level of a lot of the military folks here."
Except it proved a lot harder than he'd thought to "increase the comfort level" of Colin Powell, the popular chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the rest of the Joint Chiefs. Or satisfy another leader with important ties to the military, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
For a new president who had been elected despite a huge controversy over his draft status and opposition to the Vietnam War, this was a lose-lose proposition. Why would he want to take on the military establishment as one of his first acts after taking office? Nine days after after being sworn in, Clinton announced he was postponing a decision on the issue. Months later, Powell helped him come up with a compromise - "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But the military remained resentful toward the commander-in-chief. And on the other side of the debate, he lost the support of lifelong friends from the gay activist community like David Mixner.
Few in the White House at the time thought it would be more than a short-term solution to a deeper societal problem. Fifteen years later, it is still official policy - and just as controversial.