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There's something about Harry

Obama, Truman, and the ban on gays serving openly

My Sunday print column, tweaked and expanded:

When will Barack Obama tap his inner Truman and take the initiative to end the ignominious ban on gays serving openly in the military?

Actually, he only needs to exhibit a fraction of Harry Truman's political fortitude. When FDR's successor announced in 1948 that he intended to racially integrate the armed forces,  Americans recoiled in horror. Gallup reported that only 13 percent of the people endorsed the notion of blacks and whites serving together. Yet Truman, who was raised in the racist traditions of turn-of-the-century rural Missouri,  signed the executive order anyway; as he liked to say, "I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt."

Truman stood tall even though the wind was in his face; Obama, by taking the lead on ending the gay ban, would actually have the wind at his back anyway. National resistance to open service has melted during the 15 years since the enactment of "don't ask, don't tell." Gallup now reports that 69 percent of Americans support gays and straights serving together without the caveat of the closet – a six-point hike since 2004, fueled by big gains among conservatives and weekly churchgoers.

We've reached a rough consensus on this issue for mostly practical reasons. With the military stretched by two land wars and the twilight struggle against terrorism, it seems a tad counterproductive to keep firing people who want to put their lives on the line for their country.  More than 11,000 gays have been kicked out since 1994; taxpayers have spent well over $400 million to process the discharges. Hundreds have been Arab linguists. Dan Choi, an Iraq vet who is fluent in Arabic, received his firing notice last month after he came out on national TV.

At this point, America and Turkey are the sole founding members of NATO to maintain a ban on open service. Our closest ally, Great Britain, lifted its ban nine years ago; its Ministry of Defense has since determined that the policy switch, which it calls "a solid achievement," has had "no discernible impact" on recruitment or readiness. Nor has Israel reported problems, and, last I checked, those Israeli fighters are pretty tough. All told, 24 nations now allow gays to serve openly, and none of them have reversed course.

Yet Obama seems unwilling to make even the easiest move. He has the authority to sign an executive order suspending the forced ousters of gay service members. That should be a no-brainer. But, unlike Harry Truman (who seized the reins on civil rights despite being broadly unpopular), Obama is clearly averse to spending even a cent of his considerable political capital on this issue.

This year, for instance, the Obama legal team voiced no support for a federal court case brought by a dozen ousted veterans. After an appeals court decreed recently that the ban on open service is "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion," Obama's lawyers filed papers saying that the judges had ruled correctly – and argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should refuse to hear any further appeal. Last Monday the high court agreed with Obama, and refused to hear it.

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said last month that ending the ban on open service remains a "priority," but the president's reticence has frustrated the gay community that fervently supported him last November. In an online interview the other day, Rev. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, said: "The argument that he's got other things on his plate really doesn't hold water since he has certainly demonstrated an ability to multitask and to tackle very, very important issues at the same time....I do think patience is wearing thin, and I think it's time for him to begin to give this some of his time and energy."

I've heard various rationales for Obama's reluctance to lead, starting with his alleged busyness, the notion that he already has a full plate of issues, ranging from health care to energy, and, therefore, that he doesn't want to distract Congress (ending the open service ban will require congressional approval). Other rationales: He doesn't want to antagonize the military brass, with whom he is still nurturing relationships; and he doesn't want to fight another culture war that could imperil the dozens of Democratic congressmen who hail from conservative districts.

But the open service issue no longer triggers a culture war. The aforementioned Gallup poll reports that 58 percent of conservatives, 58 percent of Republicans, and 60 percent of weekly churchgoers now believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly. The conservative percentage has jumped 12 points since 2004; the churchgoer share, by 11 points.

At least those polls are based on scientific samplings – unlike the survey conducted last December by the Military Times newspaper. This survey, which claimed that 58 percent of U.S. troops oppose open gay service, has been widely touted by the opponents of reform. The problem, however, is that Military Times merely asked its subscribers to volunteer their opinions on the issue. As subsequent studies have pointed out, the subscribers who responded were disproportionately male and self-identified Republicans.

It's true, of course, that some military leaders and retired flag officers still oppose lifting the ban. But Truman had it far worse when he sought to integrate in 1948. Southerners in the service warned that recruitment and morale would suffer, that many soldiers would refuse to re-enlist. World War II icon Omar Bradley publicly declared that the military, especially in the midst of a Cold War, should not be forced to conduct "social experiments," and Truman had to tell him to zip it.

Obama has a lot more cover; for instance, retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contended two years ago that openly-serving gays "would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," and that the lifting of the ban was "inevitable." He also cited an '06 Zogby poll which reported that three-quarters of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets felt comfortable serving with gays. Meanwhile, this past April, a Quinnipiac poll found that, by a margin of 56 to 39 percent, people in military households reject the argument that openly serving gays would be divisive.

But what's really weak is this notion that Obama is too overwhelmed with weighty matters to deal at this time with the serving gays. To put that argument in perspective, let's return to Truman.

Here are just some of the weighty matters that plagued Truman during the first half of 1948: Soviet aggression in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria; China, on the verge of falling to the communists; a severe domestic housing crisis; a Republican-led Congress that was fiercely resisting his various proposals for national health insurance, a higher minimum wage, stronger pro-labor laws, and expanded education aid. Moreover, all the polls predicted that, when Truman stood for re-election in November, he would be toast. He was so widely ridiculed that Americans had already coined the phrase, "To err is Truman."

Yet somehow he managed to multi-task and touch the third rail. It took another six years for the military to fully desegregate, but the point is, Truman had the guts to defy the polls and make it happen.

And as another famous tough guy once said, "Lifting the ban on gays in the military isn't exactly nothing, but it's pretty darned close. Everybody knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar….It's time to deal with this straight on and be done with it."

That was Barry Goldwater, father of the modern conservative movement, speaking 16 years ago. But we'll never be done with it unless Obama starts the clock.