By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A02
Mike Mullen's 42 years in the military earned him a chest full of ribbons, but never did he do something braver than what he did on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
In a packed committee room, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff looked hostile Republican senators in the eye and told them unwelcome news: He thinks gays should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces he commands.
"Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," the nation's top military officer told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
People in the audience looked at one another. At the press tables, computer keys started clicking. Reporters consulted the time on their digital recorders.
If opponents prevail in their effort to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars gays from serving openly in the military, they will doubtless point to those strong words -- until now heresy for a top military officer -- as a turning point. Supporters of the policy evidently grasped that, too, for they turned against the admiral with caustic words.
On the dais, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican Party's 2008 presidential standard-bearer, accused Mullen and the other witness, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of trying to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law "by fiat." Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) accused the admiral of obeying "directives" from President Obama. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) accused Mullen of "undue command influence."
As the challenges to his integrity continued, Mullen pursed his lips, then put his forearms on the table, displaying the admiral stripes on his sleeves. After Sessions's provocation, the Joint Chiefs chairman glared at the diminutive Alabamian. "This is not about command influence," Mullen said. "This is about leadership, and I take that very seriously."
It made little sense to accuse Mullen of currying favor with the president. Nominated for a first term by George W. Bush, Mullen was renominated by Obama and began his second two-year term in October. Joint Chiefs chairmen traditionally serve only two terms, so the lame-duck Mullen is freer than ever to speak his mind.
That made the admiral's words all the more striking. Just three years ago, Mullen's predecessor as chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, gave a very different view on gays in the military, saying, "We should not condone immoral acts." Challenging that view, held by many top brass, couldn't have been easy. "Admiral Mullen, I want to salute you for the courage of what you said," offered Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a former Navy secretary and a classmate of Mullen's at the U.S. Naval Academy.
McCain, who once said he would support repeal of the law if top military brass did, instead challenged the candor of Mullen and Gates before they spoke. He held up a letter from retired officers who favor the current law and said they "can speak more frankly" than those still serving. McCain then protested when the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), announced that senators would have three minutes each to ask questions.
"We need more than three minutes," McCain growled. He turned to Sessions and gave a derisive laugh.
"This schedule was shared with everybody here," Levin pointed out.
"Not with me," McCain retorted.
"It was indeed," Levin maintained.
"You're the chairman," McCain said bitterly.
In the end, three minutes proved more than sufficient. McCain and four Republican colleagues left before the hearing ended, and the other six GOP members of the panel didn't show up at all.
After McCain's performance, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) reminded him, and the rest of the room, about the different view on the topic held by McCain's late political mentor from Arizona. "Barry Goldwater once said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight.' "
The next three Republicans were all Southern white men, and all opposed to Mullen's view. After Sessions and Wicker took their shots at the admiral, it was time for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.). "In my opinion, the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would very likely create an unacceptable risk," he said, putting homosexuality in a category with "adultery, fraternization and body art."
Mullen did not bend. He said he knew of no studies indicating that repealing the law would undermine morale. He said he knew of no harm to the British and Canadian militaries from the decision to allow openly gay troops to serve.
"Sort of a fundamental principle with me . . . is everybody counts," he told the senators. "Putting individuals in a position that every single day they wonder whether today's going to be the day" -- that they are kicked out for being gay -- "and devaluing them in that regard is inconsistent with us as an institution."
If they awarded decorations for congressional testimony, Mullen would have himself a Medal of Honor.