If you read up on the origins of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, if you review what has happened over the years, then you will also notice the alibi phrase "lack of leadership." It suggests that in some totally unpredictable way a good plan has gone awry. In fact, the opposite is true. The policy is doing precisely what the military intended: keeping gays out of the armed services. Now that, in a way, is leadership.

The result--wholly unintended but wholly predictable--was the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell on account of his being gay. No one wanted that to happen. But you may ask just exactly what everyone from the president on down thought would happen if gays were treated as aliens--tolerated but hardly welcomed, and then only if they stayed in the closet. This was not a policy. It was a craven accommodation to bigotry.

Now President Clinton has expressed second thoughts about this policy. It's "out of whack now," he said recently. Now his wife, the first lady and Senate candidate from New York, is saying she doesn't like the policy one bit. Now Al Gore, the vice president and a presidential candidate, is saying the same thing. Where have they been since 1993? It's not their minds that have changed, it's their political circumstances. One's a lame duck and the other two are in tight political races.

As for the military, it has much to answer for. If an officer, even one with stars on his shoulders, has an extramarital affair, he could be court-martialed--demoted, fined or passed over for promotion. In the military, your marriage may survive adultery, but your career won't.

But if you harass some poor private for months--if you call him "faggot," "queer" and "homo"--if some noncommissioned officers join in while others just look the other way, then nothing at all happens. Winchell was murdered, beaten to death with a baseball bat, but the Army has tried no one but the killers. Why? What about those noncoms? What about the officers? What about the post commander, for crying out loud? What's he running, a frat house?

Winchell's murder was not akin to a lightning strike, an act of God. It was an act of man. Something like it was bound to happen once the entire military establishment, backed by some yahoos in Congress, stared down President Clinton in 1993 and compelled him to back away from his campaign promise to lift the ban against homosexuals in the military. Clinton should simply have issued an executive order, acted like the commander in chief for once in his life, and told Colin Powell, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to either salute or resign. Powell would have saluted--and implemented the policy (even though he opposed it) until, possibly, it was overturned by Congress.

It's easy enough to blame Clinton, Gore and even Hillary Clinton for doing and saying little as the evidence accumulated that "don't ask, don't tell" was not working. (Among other things, the number of gays being discharged rose by 70 percent from 1993 to 1998.) But Congress, led in recent years by some certified homophobes, was dead set against a more liberal policy.

Even some usually sane senators acted like fools on this issue. Sam Nunn and John Warner went down to the Norfolk Naval Base to see for themselves how cramped conditions are on a submarine. To their mock horror, they discovered that people did indeed live in very close quarters. "The American people have to know," Nunn explained.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was in fact Nunn's bright idea--a compromise, he called it. But it did not compromise at all with the canard that gays are somehow sick, weird, a bit less than human, a menace to children and, often, sexual predators. On the contrary, by yielding to bigotry, the policy endorsed it. It validated the homophobia that is so imbedded in our culture. At the very least it did nothing to contradict it.

In 1948 Harry Truman desegregated the Army by fiat. He did so over the objections of the brass and the secretary of the Army. He did so in an era when blacks still could not vote in the South, when schools were segregated, when blacks and whites even had their own state parks, when whites gave orders to blacks and not the other way around and a black man could be lynched on the whisper of a sexual allegation.

The racial bigotry of that era was ugly, pervasive, pernicious and even supported in law. Yet Truman acted because he thought it was right. President Clinton also knows what's right. He ought to just do it.