I've had high hopes for Adm. Mike Mullen ever since I learned that his mom was an assistant to Jimmy Durante and his dad was a Hollywood press agent.
Tuesday, the craggy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed that a lifetime in the military has not knocked all the showbiz pizazz out of him.
"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," Mullen said during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on dropping the archaic "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
In heartfelt testimony to the senators, Mullen said: "I have served with homosexuals since 1968." Acknowledging that they face death daily, he said that "putting individuals in a position that every single day they wonder whether today's going to be the day, and devaluing them in that regard, just is inconsistent with us as an institution."
In 1993, when Bill Clinton tried to do the right thing by allowing gays and lesbians in the military to be themselves, a predecessor of Mullen's, Colin Powell, directed the embarrassingly public and retrograde rebellion by the generals against it, leading a conga line of heavy brass over to the White House to tell the president not to exercise his authority as commander in chief and order an end to one of the last vestiges of discrimination in the armed forces.
Still traumatized by the 1993 pummeling Clinton endured, the Obama White House is inching forward, like soldiers under attack crawling on their bellies through the dirt, trying to avoid friendly fire from groups wanting the law changed and hostile fire from others wanting it left alone.
Before Mullen and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates even made their opening statements, John McCain went on the attack against overturning the policy. The conservative senator who has always been known for honor and clarity cited "vast complexities" as a reason not to change the policy, whatever that means, as well as the fact that "the Senate vigorously debated it in 1993." Yeah, nothing's changed.
Even Powell now admits that "we definitely should re-evaluate it." And Roland Burris, the Illinois senator, reminded his colleagues that it took Harry Truman to integrate the services: "At one time, my uncles and members of my race couldn't even serve in the military, and we moved to this point where they're some of the best and brightest that we've had -- generals and even now the commander in chief is of African- American heritage."
McCain said the law was "imperfect but effective," even though Mullen's military journal, Joint Force Quarterly, called it a "costly failure" and denied that the cohesion of the forces would be hurt if gays and lesbians could be open about their sexuality, as they are in Britain and Canada.
Three years ago, McCain told a group of college students that he would drop his objections on the issue "the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy.' "
But Tuesday, when that day came, McCain waved a letter at Gates and Mullen, saying it was "signed by over 1,000 former generals and flag officers who have weighed in" against changing the policy.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said that if they began to loosen one restriction, others might unravel, leading to a louche atmosphere brimming with "alcohol use, adultery, fraternization and body art."
Don't ask, don't tat.
In 1993, Sam Nunn, the conservative Georgia Democrat who was the leader of the Armed Services Committee, famously gave lawmakers a tour of a submarine and its showers to show what close quarters sailors endured, implying that it would be impossible to separate the men from the men if gays were out.
So it was a welcome sign of how things have changed that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stepped up to torpedo the hypocrisy, is an admiral.
THE NEW YORK TIMES