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Image: Pentagon
An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington on Dec. 26, 2011.Dan De LUCE / AFP - Getty Images file

A decade later, reflecting on the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

10 years ago, most Senate Republicans tried to derail a top Obama priority: repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They were wrong and he was right.


It was exactly 27 years ago this week when the Clinton administration, trying to craft some kind of compromise, created the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for openly gay Americans who volunteer to serve in the military. And it was exactly 10 years ago yesterday when Barack Obama signed a law ending the discriminatory policy. As a PBS report summarized:

The compromise was the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which said gay service members were not required to disclose their sexual orientation, but could still be discharged if they were discovered to be gay. For the next 17 years, many gay and lesbian service members described living and serving in limbo, knowing there was no longer a ban on them per se, but that their careers would still be at risk if they were found out. That began to change on Dec. 22, 2010 — 10 years ago today — when President Barack Obama signed into law the repeal of DADT.

To be sure, as an NBC News report explained this week, the ugly legacy of DADT has not gone away. But on the 10th anniversary of the ridiculous policy's demise, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the fight that led to the policy's demise.

As I explained in my book (see chapter 8), this was one of the last big legislative fights of the late Sen. John McCain's lengthy career. Obama had made DADT's demise a top priority for his first year in office, and his 2008 presidential rival -- a decorated war hero who said he'd served alongside gay servicemen -- invested considerable energy into leaving the status quo in place.

As the debate began in earnest in June 2009, McCain initially said he supported maintaining DADT because military leaders supported it. "The reason why I supported the policy to start with is because General Colin Powell, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the one that strongly recommended we adopt this policy in the Clinton administration. I have not heard General Powell or any of the other military leaders reverse their position."

The Arizona Republican should've paid better attention: Powell had already endorsed repealing the policy. So, too, did his Joint Chiefs successor, Gen. John Shalikashvili. In fact, it was around this time that dozens of retired generals and admirals, many of whom supported the DADT policy when it was first enacted, said they believed it was time to end the discriminatory ban on openly gay servicemembers.

When his first talking point was discredited, McCain moved to a new one: retired military leaders might've been on board with repealing DADT, but he'd wait to hear from senior Pentagon leaders at the time. When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen endorsed the White House's position, McCain said they didn't count.

Soon after, the GOP senator said what really mattered was a Pentagon survey of active duty personnel and their families. In November 2010, the Department of Defense released the results of its yearlong study, which found that more than 70% of respondents were comfortable with ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Disappointed, McCain moved the goalposts again: he said he'd need a year to review the survey's findings.

The Senate moved on without him. A GOP filibuster was narrowly defeated on Dec. 18, 2010, and the Democratic-led Senate approved the repeal soon after. It passed on a 65-to-31 vote, which may seem lopsided, but note the context: even after every question had been answered, even after every concern was addressed, even after every "scary" scenario was examined and discredited, three out of four Senate Republicans voted against it anyway.

Two years later, Republican officials at the national level approved their party platform -- back when Republicans believed in creating platforms -- which decried "social experimentation" in the military and condemned efforts to "undermine military priorities and mission readiness." Or put another way, even after DADT was gone, at least some Republican officials seemed interested in bringing it back.

For their part, Pentagon leaders scrutinized the post-DADT military, and examined the concerns raised by the right: there would be weakened recruiting, poor morale, a breakdown in unit cohesion, and an inevitable lack of readiness. Defense Department officials found each of these to be wrong once openly gay Americans were able to serve.

There's no word from the 31 Senate Republicans -- many of whom are still in the chamber -- about whether they have any regrets for trying to derail DADT's repeal.

At the signing ceremony 10 years ago yesterday, Obama noted before signing the bill, "No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military — regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance — because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."

The then-president added that he believes "this is the right thing to do for our military. That's why I believe it is the right thing to do, period."

At the start of the event, Obama told an enthusiastic audience, "This is a good day." A decade later, there's no doubt that he was right.