Barack Obama couldn't do what Clinton tried to do –– lift the ban on homosexuals in the military by executive order, the same way Harry Truman desegregated the military –– because Congress had written DADT into law. Obama also knew that he couldn't sell the repeal of DADT unless the military brass went along.
"Don't ask, don't tell" was the product of a bad compromise.
Ambushed by his generals and Republican congressional leaders eager to see the new president fail in his first weeks in office, Bill Clinton broke his campaign promise to let gays and lesbians serve openly in uniform. He retreated to a half-measure that was in many ways worse than the outright ban, calling it a compromise.
Barack Obama made the same campaign promise, but he couldn't do what Clinton tried to do –– lift the ban on homosexuals in the military by executive order, the same way Harry Truman desegregated the military –– because Congress had written DADT into law. Obama also knew that he couldn't sell the repeal of DADT unless the military brass went along.
So Obama first won over the brass, getting Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to endorse the change. Retired generals, including Colin Powell and Wesley Clark, joined the call for repeal. Obama commissioned a study to take the pulse of the men and women in uniform, which took a big talking point away from opponents.
Then it was up to Democrats in Congress to find a way to unlock the shackles Bob Dole had put on the Pentagon in 1993. It was a long slog, but with the clock ticking down, they rounded up the votes. Those who want to award gold stars for pulling it off include some often-maligned individuals: Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins and even Scott Brown.
On civil rights issues, there is always a question of who gets credit for legislative advancements: the activists or the politicians. One of several faux controversies during the 2008 Democratic primaries was whether to credit Lyndon Johnson or Martin Luther King Jr. for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The obvious answer is that both activists and political leaders are necessary to make change happen, but that one doesn't happen without the other.
In the case of DADT, the service members who sacrificed their careers to out themselves and their brothers and sisters who took up their cause were essential. Just as the committed gay couples in Massachusetts helped make same-sex marriage legal by telling their stories in court, in public and in countless discussions with legislators, gay service members put a human face on DADT. They changed public opinion, and they changed minds in Congress.
As in other civil rights battles, court challenges played a role as well. Eventually, through one means or another, DADT was doomed to fall. It was a relic from an age in which discrimination against homosexuals was casually accepted. But it wouldn't have fallen this week without the efforts of countless activists and the courage of dozens of political leaders.