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

But Dr. Aaron Belkin at the Palm Center had a change that he wanted added in: a third and wholly unnecessary concession. Aaron was not directly involved in the repeal movement’s politics, but he certainly thought he was abreast of them, and he seemed to desperately want some sort of fingerprint on the final version of the legislation. Belkin began almost unilaterally lobbying to have the nondiscrimination language taken out of the bill, and as he was so good at doing, he began manufacturing momentum for this idea. He wrote an op-ed in its favor for General John Shalikashvili, whose New York Times piece in support of DADT repeal had been so influential, then got General Shali’s son to get Shali to sign off on it. Belkin began declaring in public that we did not have the votes for repeal without removing the nondiscrimination language, but he would not have known whether we did or not. He was never in the room with the coalition, and no one else associated with the Palm Center ever was either. He did not know the vote count directly from Senate offices. His information was second- and third-hand at best, yet here he was unilaterally giving away the coveted nondiscrimination language that ensured that the military could never again revert to any sort of antigay policy.

All of us who were actually working on the political parts of DADT repeal were furious. We knew that taking out the nondiscrimination language would not pick up one single vote—the two concessions we’d already made picked up the votes we needed on committee—and we hoped that Belkin’s lobbying effort had not foreclosed upon our options for keeping that language in. But once your interest group community puts a concession out on the table, or someone on your side unilaterally puts it out there for you, it’s hard to walk it back. What the White House and the Pentagon essentially did was to take all of the concessions that had been publicly floated, read the writing on the wall, and reluctantly agree to support a repeal amendment that included all three of them.

We found out that the White House and the Pentagon were finally going to agree to support the new repeal amendment when we were summoned to yet another meeting at the White House on Monday, May 24. Foreshadowing their slightly greater level of cooperation, this meeting took place in the West Wing, in the Roosevelt Room to be precise, instead of in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. I had only been in the West Wing once before, and I entered through the entrance across from EEOB then. This time, I entered through the gate directly north of the West Wing. Since I had never been through this entrance before, I had no clue which door of the actual building to go into, so at first I accidentally walked into the press briefing room. The only reason I recognized I was in the wrong place was because it looked almost exactly like the press briefing room from the TV series The West Wing, and for a moment I secretly hoped I would see C. J. Cregg come around the corner and make a witty comment. A jovial reporter hanging out by the door quickly picked up on the fact that I was lost and told me that the West Wing lobby was the next door down.

A tall, sharp marine opened the outside (correct) door for me, and another marine opened the second door inside. I wondered immediately if they knew why we were there and what they thought about DADT. When I got inside, I noticed that I was one of the last to arrive. Waiting in the lobby already were some of the usual suspects, including David Smith and Joe Solmonese of HRC; Winnie Stachelberg of CAP; Aubrey Sarvis of SLDN (this time he was actually invited); and Tobias Wolff, a law school instructor who had volunteered on the Obama campaign and who was clearly there to serve as the administration’s cheerleader-in-chief. After a few awkward hellos, I joked with Aubrey that we had a bit of a Romeo and Juliet situation on our hands, as one of his staff members had started dating one of mine. He laughed and said that he was never up on those things.

Tags: Military

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