Gays in uniform

The nation's top defense officials declared Tuesday that it's time to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, allowing gay troops to serve openly for the first time in history.

Noting that he was speaking for himself and not for the other service chiefs, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told a Senate hearing: "For me, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

But 10 months before voters elect a new Congress, some Democratic leaders were leery of trying to change the policy this year. Repealing don't-ask-don't-tell is not seen as a winning campaign strategy for a party under siege, especially in the South and Midwest. "It's never a good year" for Democrats to bring up the controversial policy, said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.

And Republicans made it clear they would use the issue.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to loosen enforcement rules for the policy, which says, in essence, that gays may serve so long as they keep their sexuality private. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, responded by icily telling Mr. Gates he was disappointed in his position.

It's unfortunate to see a senator from Arizona acting that hidebound. Sen. McCain's illustrious predecessor, Barry Goldwater, had some military credentials of his own, but showed a preference for individual rights over straightlaced conformity on this issue, loudly declaring, 15 years ago, that, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, on the other hand, said he didn't see why the policy change should wait another year.

It's Sen. Reid who has it right, this time. There is scant real evidence that the nation's defense capabilities would be harmed by scrapping this policy. In addition, since "don't ask, don't tell" was established, the public's attitude toward gays and lesbians has undergone a significant shift.

Not that doing the right thing should always be subject to majority support. Though in this case, it helps.

Both Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen asked for a year to study the impact before asking Congress to change the policy. If that's what's required by political realities, so be it.

But Barry Goldwater had it right, back in 1994.