06/10/2008 02:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nunn the Wiser?

For those interested in the forces that propel -- and obstruct -- political change, last week offers an object lesson. Obama's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination has made real the prospect of badly needed change on a wide range of issues. But some worry that the young candidate could have trouble turning his soaring rhetoric into tangible improvement for American lives if he takes the White House.

Although the country faces huge challenges in economic, climate, foreign and other policy questions, there is a smaller issue awaiting action that serves as a bell weather for the kind of nation American will become in the years ahead: whether the promise of equal treatment should extend to gays and lesbians who want to serve their country in uniform.

Like other major Democratic candidates, Obama has come out clearly for ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in military service. But none has been able to do so. Now, however, the tide may finally be turning. On the same day as Obama sealed the nomination, Sam Nunn, the former senator whose name has surfaced as a possible Obama running mate, publicly ended his opposition to openly gay service, a leap forward for the lawmaker who had been the principle Congressional sponsor of the gay ban back in 1993. Nunn said last week that "times change" and it is now "appropriate to take another look" at the policy. His remarks came three days after his friend, Charles Moskos, chief architect of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, died, depriving the world of an affable and passionate military sociologist but also of the sole remaining intellectual defender of anti-gay discrimination in the military.

The question now is what is the future of the policy that even Charles Moskos once called "insidious," and that the former Judge Advocate General of the Navy has called "odious"? Will the falling dominoes of opposition result in its demise or will social conservatives and their representatives in Congress succeed in keeping the ban in place as an expression of their moral opposition to homosexuality? Could Barack Obama, as candidate or president, use the bully pulpit to finally end one of the last remaining instances of government-sanctioned discrimination in America?

In his remarks about the gay ban last week, Sen. Nunn said any reconsideration of the policy should begin with "a Pentagon study." Likewise, in one of the last interviews on the subject before his death, Charles Moskos called for a "bipartisan commission" to study the policy. No one is against research, but all too often, such language is used as a delay tactic to sound reasonable while avoiding taking real action that could be warranted by what the latest research shows. After all, it was Nunn himself who, in spearheading opposition to gay service in 1993, said even then that the issue should be "studied" carefully and that no action should be taken "overnight."

During that battle, in which Nunn badly wounded his own party's leader, the senator's reputation as a national security expert and staunch defender of the military -- to colleagues, he was known as "Mr. Defense" -- made it plausible for him to frame the national conversation in terms of military readiness, rather than the civil rights terms favored by advocates of gay equality. The key question, Nunn said in the dramatic Senate hearings he held in the spring of 1993, was not morality or fairness but military effectiveness. As a seasoned political operative, he was able to ensure that the Senate deliberations appeared fair-minded, calm and serious. He insisted that his moral beliefs had no bearing on his position on the issue and on how he conducted the Senate hearings. "I can tell you that I have my own moral beliefs," he said, "but that's not playing a role in my hearings." Nunn even said Americans needed to be "tolerant of people who have different lifestyles."

All of it sounded eminently reasonable, except that anyone with a modicum of experience in politics could see that Nunn used the "study" period not to assess the evidence in order to put the issue to an informed vote, but to build an arsenal of weapons to defeat the effort to lift the ban. Time was used not to learn, but to let opposition fester and grow. Studies were buried when they concluded the wrong thing. And hearings were stacked against Nunn's political opponents.

When Nunn found out that the planned testimony of retired Army Colonel Lucian Truscott III would describe the experiences of openly gay service members seamlessly integrated into their units, he removed him from the roster. When Nunn realized that the father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, was also planning to testify that gays ought to be allowed to serve openly in the military, he replaced him too.

Concerns about military effectiveness certainly drove Nunn's efforts. But they also reflected what can only be understood as antipathy to gay people. In 1984, Nunn backed Senator John Glenn's bid for the White House, citing his "courage" in expressing the "strongly held moral belief that homosexuals should not be the role models for our children." Nunn dismissed two political aides because they were gay, and defended his actions by saying they could not work effectively on classified matters because their homosexuality made them a security risk. Asked in 1993 if he believed that the heterosexual lifestyle was "morally superior to the homosexual lifestyle," Nunn answered that he was "not only saying that" but that "American family deterioration is one of the biggest problems we face in our culture," implying that tolerance of gays and lesbians was a leading contributor to the problem.

In the end, little changed for gay troops, and Nunn worked hard to derail even the minimal reforms that President Clinton continued to promote as he lost the battle to lift the ban altogether.

Fifteen years later, Nunn's had second thoughts. "I think [when] 15 years go by on any personnel policy, it's appropriate to take another look at it," he said last week, to "see how it's working, ask the hard questions, hear from the military." Nunn is now even suggesting that the law he championed was just the "beginning point," making it "possible for people to serve honorably in the military without lying on the application." It's revisionist history at best: nowhere in the record did Nunn ever make the case that he was shepherding through a temporary law (although other players did view "don't ask, don't tell" this way). And while it's true that gay recruits no longer have to lie on their enlistment applications, they continue to have to lie on a daily basis while serving -- any time a peer asks them the most basic question about their personal lives.

As can be seen by revisiting Nunn's past words and deeds, the true source behind opposition to gay service was never concerns about unit cohesion, as was often stated, but moral animus to gay rights. And so his call now to "study" the issue ought to raise eyebrows. Indeed, in the case of gay service, it's not clear that any more studies are needed. An enormous amount of data has accumulated since 1993 showing that openly gay service does not impair the military, but that the ban itself wastes talent, further stretching our forces and undermining trust among troops who are not allowed to be honest with one another. The research includes studies conducted and commissioned by the government and even the Pentagon, which in some cases have been suppressed by military officials when the results conflicted with the current policy of anti-gay discrimination. Twenty-four nations now allow gays to serve openly, and thorough studies of their experiences corroborate that banning open gays is both unnecessary and damaging to the forces.

Nunn's call for reconsideration of the gay ban is a welcome development, but his proposal for a Pentagon study is behind the curve, especially given the military's history of burying studies on this topic whose conclusions its leaders oppose. Over 140 members of Congress have already signed a bi-partisan bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," and a Congressional committee is planning hearings on the matter this summer. Ultimately, the fate of the ban on open gays rests in the hands of Congress. But with Nunn's new course and Moskos' death, two giants of support for the gay ban are no longer championing discrimination. This changing of the guard also gives Barack Obama a historic opportunity to succeed where Bill Clinton failed, and to show he will be a new kind of politician, who is not cowed by fear. Whether Obama leads on this issue will say a great deal about what kind of president he plans to become.

Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Palm Center at UC-Santa Barbara, is author of the forthcoming Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.