Book Excerpt: The Drama Behind Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Alexander Nicholson shares the back-and-forth that went on behind the scenes between gay activists, Congress members, the Pentagon, and the president in the months leading up to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

BY Alexander Nicholson

September 17 2012 4:00 AM ET

The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" had a provision that some gay activists saw as risky. The caveat required the entire military to be trained on integrating out troops, and President Obama, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of Defense each had to certify that the armed services had been properly trained. In a new book, Fighting to Serve, Alexander Nicholson explains the delicate actions around that decision. Nicholson, the executive director of Servicemembers United, writes that endorsement of the incremental repeal by his organization as well as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network gave a sort of stamp of approval, alerting gay people that this time the Pentagon could be trusted to work in their favor. Here, Nicholson shares the back-and-forth that went on behind the scenes between members of Gay Inc., Congress members, the Pentagon, and the president.

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Our endorsement, along with SLDN’s, was critical to legitimizing this concession, and the new repeal amendment as a whole, to the gay and progressive communities. But the idea for this second concession did not come from Servicemembers United. It did not come from SLDN or HRC either. As soon as I saw it in writing, weeks before it was announced publicly, I knew it was brilliant and I wished that I had thought of it. But the conduit through which it came was Winnie Stachelberg at the Center for American Progress. To my knowledge Stachelberg hadn’t come up with this idea herself either, and it likely didn’t even come from within her organization, but CAP nevertheless was the organization that was given the proposal to vet, to present to our coalition, and eventually to present to our allies in the Senate, namely Senators Joseph Lieberman and Carl Levin, for their buy-in.

Stachelberg had been with HRC for eleven years, serving as their political director and then as the vice president of the HRC Foundation before she went over to former White House chief of staff John Podesta’s new progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. Winnie’s former ties to HRC and CAP’s close ties with the administration—Podesta was also the head of the Obama transition team—meant that Stachelberg got roped into the inner DADT circle with us. She often supported HRC’s positions in the coalition, which is why they liked her being there, but she was actually pleasant and personable, which is why I liked her being there too.

Others outside of the inner circle, however, did not understand why Stachelberg was a part of DADT repeal deliberations. She and CAP did not have a constituency, they argued, and their close ties to the Obama White House meant that she was inherently distrusted by bloggers and many independent activists. But I often defended Stachelberg’s involvement in our coalition. Even though I grew to trust her less as time went on, I still liked her, and I thought she was a lot more of a decent human being than many of the others involved. And we needed some pleasantness to balance out the lack thereof elsewhere in the coalition.

When Stachelberg introduced the idea of the conditional trigger to the rest of us in the inner DADT circle at a meeting in Senator Lieberman’s office in early May, I immediately perked up and thought we had found our magic key. This trigger mechanism was a perfect match for the requirements of the Pentagon, which wanted control over the rate of change—and desperately wanted to hold off the start of that change until after their nine-month-long review was completed. As far as I was concerned, this option of passing the repeal law now but stipulating that it would only take effect when the top defense officials gave the go-ahead was brilliant. Once legislative repeal was locked in, Congress would be out of the picture. Then, as soon as the chairman and the secretary were ready, they would sign off on the certification, and of course the president would too, and we would be done. This seemed like the perfect solution to pick up the last few votes we needed on the Senate Armed Services Committee in order to proceed. And as it turned out, it was.

Tags: Military

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