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 5:00 AM ET

When we tried to press the White House staff for more—a guarantee of an administrative nondiscrimination policy after legislative repeal, for example—all we got was “This is where we are right now.” The message was clear: the administration was now on board, but they were not happy about it. They were upset that we had pushed them onto the train a year earlier than they wanted to get on board. And they were not going to provide any additional fuel for that train or make us feel better about the ride ahead.

Orszag’s statement was soon followed up with an equally tepid statement of support from Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen, although it was still one we could work with. Their statement said that although they would have preferred legislative action after their nine-month study had been completed, they could support the new proposed amendment.

It was completely incomprehensible that all of these men would not fully support this amendment. Gates and Mullen had testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that they both supported the president’s goal of ending DADT. This amendment did that, and it did it when, and only when, those two men specifically said the military was ready. If they said it was ready after the study was finished, they would be allowed to make that change happen. If they did not think it was ready for another fifty years, they could block the change for another fifty years. We knew that would never happen, of course, but the important point was that this amendment gave them that power. But the Pentagon is often an incomprehensible beast. Sometimes ego and other factors go into equations about what the Pentagon will support, and often the reality of ticking political clocks do not. In any case, although it was not what they really wanted and it was not what we really wanted, we had gotten what we needed to push forward. It was all about sufficiency, and both the amendment and the White House and Pentagon statements were minimally sufficient to move ahead.

Given that news of the meeting had leaked to Politico before we even got there, it was no surprise that reporters started calling almost as soon as I walked the two blocks back to my office. I tried to avoid media calls and e-mails for a while, but one small-time reporter caught me picking up the phone because of an unrecognized area code (most media calls were coming from DC, New York City, and Los Angeles area codes). This reporter for a small gay publication seemed to think she had hit the jackpot by getting me on the phone, and she started barraging me with frantic questions about the meeting. When I politely told her that she would need to try someone else for information about the meeting, she chastised me for not wanting to give her what would become publicly available information later anyway. That certainly was not the way to get me to open up, and after that I would not give her anything, not even a comment on what the weather had been like on the way to and from the meeting.

But news of the meeting did make it out, and once again the conspiracy theories abounded about what secret plans had been hashed out between Gay Inc. (into which we were now ironically cast) and the White House at this meeting. The biggest and most inaccurate collective public conclusion from the whole episode was that this was the meeting where the “deal” about the amendment had been worked out and agreed upon by all parties. Clearly, that was far from the truth.

Most of the amendment language had been developed weeks prior and had already been discussed and debated within the organizational and Capitol Hill DADT coalition. It had been presented as a unanimously supported option to Senator Levin, who liked the idea and agreed to push it forward as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There was no negotiation with the White House, contrary to popular belief and popular reports. Had there been, we might have ended up with even less.

By the time we got to the Roosevelt Room, the final amendment language was a done deal. At this point, the White House and the Pentagon could either be with us or they could be against us. They chose reluctantly to be dragged along. But to hear them tell it later, they had been conducting the train the whole way.

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Excerpted with permission from Fighting to Serve: Behind the Scenes in the War to Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by Alexander Nicholson, published by Chicago Review Press, October 2012. The book is available to purchase though IPGbook.com, BN.com, Amazon.com, and independent bookstores.

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