Senator Nunn's Last Chance

07/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

Sam Nunn will not be on the Democratic Party ticket with Barack Obama. There. I came right out and said it, and I'll stand behind it, too. All this talk and maneuvering by and around Senator Nunn is not about the Vice Presidency; it's about a Cabinet post. Senator Nunn would like to be offered the job of Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Senator Obama will make the offer, either.

I said it's not out of the realm of possibility. I did not say, to quote the recently retired CIA director and holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom George Tenet, that it's a slam dunk.

But if it's to be a possibility, Senator Nunn has got to have a conversion experience. As a southerner myself, I can say that conversions run in our blood. Of course, it's not only southerners who are born again. In one way or another it happens to many of our men and women in public office when they suddenly find the bright light of scandal shining in their eyes. Take, for example, Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig, both accused of a little hanky-panky, who are co-sponsoring the Marriage Protection Amendment -- to the Constitution!

I'm talking about a conversion of a different sort, however. Senator Nunn has got to go all the way on opening the military to qualified gays and lesbians who want to serve -- not half way, as he's been doing lately.

Admittedly, he's come a long way since 1993, when he was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then Senator Nunn led his committee members on a tour of a submarine so they could see just how close the quarters were. Gentlemen, if we allowed gays in the military, our innocent, unsuspecting heterosexual boys would be at the mercy of the queer in the next bunk! That, at least, seemed to be the (ridiculous) assumption behind all that nonsense. Of course, Senator Nunn didn't believe it -- let's give him credit for that, whether he deserves it or not -- but it played well to the homophobia Bill Clinton's proposal had aroused in the higher echelons of the Pentagon, in Congress, and in the country. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said essentially the same thing. The result was the compromise commonly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It's OK to be gay; just pretend you're straight -- 24/7, as they say.

Recently Senator Nunn has suggested that DADT deserves another look, maybe another study. Oh, come on! There has been study after study and all the serious ones have come to the same conclusion, which is that sexual orientation doesn't really affect a man's or woman's ability to serve and serve well.

It's time to bite the bullet, Senator Nunn. Get with the program.

That would be Senator Obama's program. The Democratic presidential candidate has taken a strong stand against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The New York Times reported that he compared it to "the integration of blacks in the armed forces as both a moral issue and an achievable goal." (It's worth noting that event occurred sixty years ago on July 26th, the day President Truman signed the Executive Order ending racial discrimination in the military. The anniversary falls three days after the House Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee opens the first hearing in fifteen years on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the manpower needs of the military.)

So when Senator Nunn sits down with Barack Obama to discuss a possible Cabinet appointment, what's he going to say about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? That he supports it, like Senator McCain? Not very likely, not if he wants a job. That it needs further study, as he and Colin Powell sagely concurred during a conference at the Aspen Ideas Festival early this month?

No, Senator Nunn has to tell Senator Obama that he has changed -- people do, people grow -- and that he now supports the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246), which would repeal DADT. And he has to mean it and feel comfortable with it.

Eight years ago Senator Nunn got the message there would be no Cabinet role for him in an Al Gore Administration. Why? The 1993 DADT circus. The former senator from Georgia is likely to be rejected for State or Defense by another Democratic nominee unless he starts talking and talking soon about his conversion. And it must be complete and genuine. Half-way measures will not get him in the big house on Observatory Hill, much less the Pentagon.

Not many are offered the second chance in life to correct their earlier mistakes that Sam Nunn is being offered now. Maybe it's more accurate to say that if they are offered a second chance, they don't have the courage to take it.

Senator Nunn has the opportunity now to make right what he did wrong in 1993, and I know he has the courage to do it.