Don't Ask Nunn
As Sen. Barack Obama considers potential running mates, he should contemplate Sam Nunn with caution. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1993, Nunn helped lead the fight against allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military and was the force behind the disastrous "don't ask, don't tell" compromise. In the process, Nunn engendered the enduring enmity of a loyal voting and fundraising bloc of the Democratic Party.
That Nunn's name keeps appearing on vice presidential shortlists makes sense. A Southerner who spent 24 years in the Senate, he would give Obama entree to voters who chose Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. His moderate-to-conservative positions would balance out Obama's liberal street cred. More important, he would add foreign policy heft. Nunn was a member of the "Atari Democrats," who favored advancements in military technology, including Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative. He was behind the 1992 program, with Sen. Richard Lugar, that continues to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. (Were those weapons on the market today, they'd surely be on al-Qaeda's shopping list.) Nunn also fiercely defended the prerogatives of military commanders.
When Bill Clinton sought to keep his 1992 campaign promise to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, he met strong resistance in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Nunn, one of the most adamant opponents, led a series of hearings that were stacked against ending the prohibition. Critics noted that Nunn held more hearings about and spent more time on gays in the military than he had on the defense budget or even the Navy's Tailhook sexual harassment scandal.
Already, the prospect of an Obama-Nunn ticket does not sit well with some prominent gay Democratic fundraisers. "It would without question irrevocably diminish my enthusiasm for the democratic ticket," a longtime Clinton supporter told me in an e-mail. "Sam Nunn not only opposed [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people's] rights to serve in the military, he viciously campaigned against it."
Famously, Nunn led lawmakers on a tour of cramped submarine quarters and showers, an exercise that many viewed as a crass attempt to raise an ick factor of homosexuals living among straight troops. As if gay men and lesbians are devoid of discipline and incapable of defending this country.
Andrew Tobias of Florida, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and (half) a superdelegate who was neutral in the primaries, told me in an e-mail, "For all Nunn's qualifications . . . there would be very little enthusiasm for him within the LGBT community." But Tobias doesn't expect "don't ask, don't tell" to last long if Obama wins in November. "Every Democratic contender favored lifting the ban, whereas Senator McCain and all HIS fellow candidates opposed it."
The military establishment's opinion on the policy has been shifting. Most notably, retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, wrote in the New York Times last year: "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces." Even Bill Clinton ran away from his policy in a 2003 letter to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "If you can serve as a police officer, an FBI agent or a member of Congress," he wrote, "there is no reason why you cannot serve as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine."
For his part, Nunn let it be known last week that he thought "don't ask, don't tell" should be revisited. "I'm not advocating anything, except I'm saying the policy was the right policy for the right time, and times change," he said. "It's appropriate to take another look." An attempt at inoculation in case the VP vetters come calling?
Jeff Soref, former chairman of the DNC's LGBT caucus, isn't buying it. " 'Revisiting' is not admitting a mistake or apologizing for the pain he inflicted or the tens of thousands of lives affected by the policy," said the Clinton supporter. "Surely there are more compelling choices out there" for vice president, "starting with Hillary Clinton."
This sentiment underscores a larger problem for Obama: how to reach Clinton's backers to unify his party. Many women, particularly older women, are none too happy with what they view as Obama's shabby treatment of her. In the final primary states, many blue-collar white voters told pollsters that if Obama topped the ticket they'd stay home or vote for Republican John McCain, who has wasted no time in trying to court them. If Obama taps Nunn, he could end up adding gay men and lesbians to the list of disgruntled Democrats. They might not vote for McCain, but they might very well stay home.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address email@example.com.