So Now, Bill Clinton ’Regrets’ ’Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 22, 2010

Bill Clinton came to office in 1992 with lofty visions of fully integrating the American military, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly and proudly. What resulted, however, was the compromise law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the 1993 law that bars military service to openly gay servicemembers but allows those who keep their sexuality a secret to remain in uniform.

Now, in an interview with CBS' Katie Couric, the former president revisited the events that led to the creation of that law 17 years ago, recalling that it was a choice of the compromise that was settled on, or no gays being allowed to serve at all.

Clinton also told Couric that Gen. Colin Powell, who is credited as one of the architects of the law and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had given a false idea of how the law would work.

" 'Don't ask, don't tell' was only adopted when both Houses of Congress had voted by a huge veto-proof margin to legislate the absolute ban on gays in the military if I didn't do something else," Clinton told Couric, reported Advocate.com on Sept. 22. "So there's been a lot of rewriting history, saying 'Bill Clinton just gave into that.' That's just factually false. I didn't do anything until the votes were counted.

"Now, when Colin Powell sold me on 'don't pass, don't tell,' here's what he said it would be," Clinton continued. "Gay servicemembers would never get in trouble for going to gay bars, marching in gay rights parades, as long as they weren't in uniform. That was what they were promised. That's a very different 'don't ask, don't tell' than we got." Under the current law, being spotted in a gay bar or gay event is grounds for investigation. Gay servicemembers have also been investigated and discharged due to rumors or invasions of privacy such as having their personal correspondence read by others.

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh remarked on Clinton's version of events during a Sept. 22 broadcast, musing that Clinton was "throwing Colin Powell under the bus about Don't Ask Don't Tell."

A measure to rescind "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" failed in the Senate on Sept. 21 when Democrats were unable to muster a needed 60 votes to stop a filibuster threatened by Sen. John McCain.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken about wishing to end the ban, explaining that she had not attempted to end DADT as a senator because "we didn't have a chance with the Republican congress and George Bush as president."

Hillary Clinton foresaw that the combination of a Democratic congress and a Democrat in the Oval Office would result in the end of the anti-gay ban and a transition to a policy under which all servicemembers would be judged on "conduct, not status," regardless of sexual orientation. Critics of Barack Obama--who also campaigned on a promise to end the ban--have expressed deep disappointment with what they perceive to be the president's unwillingness to press for the end of the anti-gay law.

A yearlong review of the ban is currently underway.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.