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Does Sen. John McCain Owe Gay Servicemen an Apology?

01/17/2011 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Sunday, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the speech given by President Barack Obama on the Arizona shootings "terrific," moving and inspiring. "[The President] encouraged every American who participates in our political debates -- whether we are on the left or right or in the media -- to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves," McCain wrote.

McCain went on to seemingly defend Sarah Palin, though not by name, who got into some hot water by using an anti-Semitic phrase to characterize the vitriolic political debate and finger pointing some believe lead to Arizona shootings. McCain wrote:

The president appropriately disputed the injurious suggestion that some participants in our political debates were responsible for a depraved man's inhumanity. He asked us all to conduct ourselves in those debates in a manner that would not disillusion an innocent child's hopeful patriotism. I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments. We should respect the sincerity of the convictions that enliven our debates but also the mutual purpose that we and all preceding generations of Americans serve: a better country; stronger, more prosperous and just than the one we inherited.

McCain noted that Americans have differing opinions and need not be "timid in our advocacy of the means we believe will achieve it. But we should be mindful as we argue about our differences that so much more unites than divides us," a phrase popular in the Clinton and Bush years and more recently, uttered by candidates for chair of the Republican National Committee.

Then McCain's op-ed takes an interesting twist that I suspect he had no idea he was insinuating. First, he calls for more civility in political discourse and writes, "and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so." But as he goes on, McCain makes an argument I think illustrates why he owes the LGBT community a huge apology. He talks about not "substituting character assassination for spirited and respectful debate" -- though he cruelly and maliciously used "character assassination" of gay servicemembers during his opposition to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. On the floor of the US Senate, McCain repeatedly cited military leaders who said that repealing DADT would "cost lives" of servicemembers in combat (see video and transcript below). He claimed that those well-trained soldiers would be so "distracted" by the presence of openly gay soldiers that their lives would be in even greater mortal danger.

I always wondered why professional soldiers were not offended by that argument. was not considered offensive by professional soldiers. But for McCain to acknowledge briefly that he, too, bears some responsibility for the hostile rhetorical climate in politics is not the same as him recognizing and apologizing for the harm his character assassination did to LGBT servicemembers, their families and the LGBT community as a whole.

In his op-ed, McCain wrote that "[p]olitical leaders are not and cannot reasonably be expected to be indifferent to the cruelest calumnies aimed at their character." Nor can LGBT servicemembers.

McCain wrote:

Imagine how it must feel to have watched one week ago the incomprehensible massacre of innocents committed by someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity, to have shared in the heartache for its victims and in the admiration for those who acted heroically to save the lives of others - and to have heard in the coverage of that tragedy voices accusing you of complicity in it.

Right. McCain sat behind openly gay Daniel Hernandez who President Obama and most of the rest of the world credit as being a hero for rushing toward the gunfire and saving Rep. Gabrille Giffords' life. MCain also cried at the memorial service for Mark Bingham, a gay PR executive and McCain supporter who was among the passengers of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 that prevented the plane from crashing into the US Capitol. Imagine how these heroes and their families and community feel hearing McCain say that their patriotic bravery would mean nothing if they were in the military? (Or any of the other LGBT heroes and victims of Sept. 11, 2001) And what of the LGBT servicemembers who have died or been wounded in war, such as former Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first soldier wounded in Iraq?

McCain wrote:

It does not ask too much of human nature to have the empathy to understand how wrong an injury that is or appreciate how strong a need someone would feel to defend him or herself against such a slur. Even to perceive it in the context of its supposed political effect and not as the claim of the human heart to the dignity we are enjoined by God and our founding ideals to respect in one another is unworthy of us, and our understanding of America's meaning.

It does not ask too much to request empathy from a politician who once held the respect of so many LGBTs. And here's why the offense from McCain, in particular, is so painful. Until DADT, John McCain had been close to beloved by many gay Republicans and independent conservatives. His office and political campaigns were filled with gays who believed in him and wanted to help him succeed. Repeatedly insinuating that allowing gays to serve openly would cause deaths and loss of limbs was almost personal betrayal, which surely he understood. It does not ask too much that he acknowledge the harm he has done and apologize.

McCain wrote:

There are too many occasions when we lack that empathy and mutual respect on all sides of our politics, and in the media. But it is not beyond us to do better; to behave more modestly and courteously and respectfully toward one another; to make progress toward the ideal that beckons all humanity: to treat one another as we would wish to be treated.

We are Americans and fellow human beings, and that shared distinction is so much more important than the disputes that invigorate our noisy, rough-and-tumble political culture. That is what I heard the president say on Wednesday evening. I commend and thank him for it.

That is the John McCain most gay Republicans remember. Apologizing and asking forgiveness for harms done is inherent in the "golden rule" McCain calls for in order to move forward. McCain should consider it. LGBTs know how to forgive; we've had a lot of practice.

Here's McCain's full statement on the repeal of DADT. The portion on how the repeal would "cost lives" starts at about 2:46 in.

On Dec. 3, the Committee on Armed Services heard from the chiefs of our four military services. Gen. Amos said, 'Based on what I know about the very tough fight in Afghanistan and the almost singular focus of our combat forces as they train up and deploy into theatre, the necessary and tightly woven cloture of those combat forces that we're asking so much of at this time and finally the direct feedback from my survey, is that we should not implement repeal at this time.'

And then he talks about mistakes and inattention and distractions cost Marines lives. Costs Marines lives. Marines come back after serving in combat and they say, 'Look, anything that is going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion. I don't' want that opportunity to happen and I'll tell you why: if you go up to Bethesda, Marines are up there with no legs. None. We've got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs.

Gen. Casey said, 'I believe that the implementation of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the (incomprehensible) will add another level of stress to an already stretched force. Two, be more difficult in our combat arms units; and three, be more difficult for the Army than the report suggests.

Gen. Schwartz basically said the same thing.

[KO: Not exactly. Schwartz also said: "It is my assessment that the U.S. Air Force can accommodate a repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' with modest risk to military readiness and effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting, and retention of our Airmen," adding that, "It is difficult for me as a member of the Joint Chiefs to recommend placing any additional discretionary demands on our leadership cadres in Afghanistan at this particular time."

Schwartz also said: "The DOD study confirms that Air Force attitudes run roughly 70/30 toward those who see positive, mixed or no effect with respect to allowing open service by gay, lesbian and bi-sexual Airmen." And: "The Air Force will pursue implementation of repeal, if the law changes, thoroughly, professionally and with conviction."

McCain continue at about 4:10 into the video:]

"I've heard from thousands, thousand of active duty and retired military personnel. I've heard from them and they're saying, 'Sen. McCain, it isn't broke and don't fix it.' So all of this talk about how it's a civil rights issue and equality - the fact is, the military has the highest recruiting and highest retention at any time in its history. So I understand the other side's argument as to their social, political agenda. But to somehow allege that it has harmed our military, it's not justified by the facts. I hope everybody recognizes that this debate is not about the broader social issues that are being discussed in our society but what is in the best interests of our national security and our military during the time of war.

Now I'm aware that this vote will probably pass today in a lame duck session and there will be high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America and we'll see the talk shows tomorrow - a bunch of people talking about how great it is - most of them never have served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military.

And you know, we'll repeal it. And all over America there'll be gold stars put up in windows of the rural towns and the communities all over America that don't partake in the elite schools that bar military recruiters from campus, that don't partake in the salons of Georgetown and the other liberal bastions here around the country.

But there will be additional sacrifice. I hear that from Master Sergeants; I hear that from junior officers, I hear that from leaders. So I am confident that with this repeal, our military - the best in the world - will salute and do the best they can to carry out the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. That's the nature of our military. And I could not be more proud of them in the performance they have given us in Iraq and Afghanistan and before that, other conflicts. And they will do what's asked of them.

But don't think it won't be at great cost. I won't forget being just a few weeks ago at Kandahar, and a Marine Army Sgt-Major with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in a forward operating base said, 'Sen. McCain, we live together, we sleep together. We eat together. Unit cohesion is what makes us succeed.

So I hope that when we pass this legislation, that we will understand that we are doing great damage and we could possibly and probably - as a commandant of the Marine Corps said - and I've been told by literally thousands of literally thousands of members of the military - harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the support - to the survival of our young men and women in the military.