Sunday, December 12, 2010

Calling out the Maverick®
(John McCain's Mark Bingham problem)

By a vote of 57-40, Senate Democrats lost on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on Thursday, three votes short of the 60 needed to reconsider debate on repeal. As expected, Senate Republicans, in the latest exercise of what Mike Taibbi has generally called “the unified field theory” of right-wing obstinance, rejected further debate. Only one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, broke ranks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to get another vote on DADT (or more specifically, on the broader Defense Authorization Bill to which the proposed DADT repeal is attached) sometime before people head for the airports back to their districts for the holidays.

This is just the latest kick in the teeth of the estimated 70,781 gay, lesbian and bisexual U.S. armed forces personnel. More than 15 years along in the rancorous debate over DADT, the policy’s supporters have generated a pisspoor ratio of light to heat. Its backers (old-school functionaries deep within the E-ringed bowels of the Pentagon, and staunchly conservative fearmongers on Capitol Hill) have ginned up one excuse after another to prevent taking up the challenge of undoing DADT’s damage by repealing it.

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The prevaricator in chief on DADT has been that venerable sidewinder John McCain, the Republican senator representing the Arizona Territory; the ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and a Vietnam veteran for whom the American military and its longstanding traditions (like heterosexual men in the combat ranks and nothing but) are to be revered, never challenged and sure as hell never changed.

In recent weeks McCain has created roadblock after roadblock to prevent DADT’s repeal. Awhile back, McCain said he might consider voting for repeal if the military brain trust advised him to, which is exactly what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and other military leaders did.

So McCain moved the ball. He asked for a comprehensive assessment of the issue that involved reaction of U.S. armed forces themselves. He was obliged months later with an expansive report and a survey of 400,000 troops indicating that 70 percent of respondents in the military services backed repeal of DADT — not inconsistent with how the country as a whole feels.

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McCain’s most recent performance was a panoramic insult to the collective armed forces he purports to champion: Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. George Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army; Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations; Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force; and Adm. Robert Papp Jr., commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, appeared Thursday in Washington at a Senate hearing on the prospects for DADT within each service branch.

After hearing them answer in the affirmative — not on their personal position on DADT but as to whether a repeal of DADT could be feasibly implemented in their respective service branches — McCain played his last card, vowing to stall repeal by blaming the economy. “I will not agree to have this bill go forward, and neither will, I believe, 41 of my colleagues, either, because our economy is in the tank,” he said.

(For an earlier unexpurgated view of a 19th century man in profound denial of the arrival of the future, check this video):

McCain has done everything he can to obstruct, delay, postpone, hamstring, hobble and prevent discussion of the repeal of DADT by the Senate. But all his maneuvers may have come up against an opponent he can’t bluff or bully, someone whose sacrifice for his country is larger and more profound than his own — by his own admission.

The fire and bluster of John McCain on the issue of DADT must confront the quiet dignity of Alice Hoagland.

Hoagland is the mother of Mark Kendall Bingham, a young 6-foot-5 Cal rugby player, PR executive, world traveler, wine connoisseur and one of the passengers on United Flight 93, on Sept. 11, 2001. Bingham was one of those who stormed the cockpit on that pivotal day, thwarting what might have been a plane strike on the Capitol, and an epochal American catastrophe. Mark Bingham was gay.

"We now believe the terrorists planned to crash that plane into the Capitol, where I was that morning," McCain said on Sept. 22, 2001. "I may very well owe my life to Mark." The senator further eulogized Bingham as “an extraordinary human being.”

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In the years since 2001, Hoagland, of Redwood Estates, Calif., has been a friend of the senator. It was in that spirit she went on cable and online on Monday, letting a friend know when he was wrong.

“I think the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is an idea, a concept whose time has come,” she told Thomas Roberts of MSNBC. “The truth is there have been many, many, many thousands perhaps, gay people who have served humbly and quietly in a low-key manner in the United States armed forces without drawing attention to themselves. That’s the way it should be and that’s the way it will continue to be. Sexual orientation should be a parenthetical issue — a non-issue.

"I hope he comes around on Don't Ask Don't Tell. I know he's entrenched in the mistaken notion that gay people somehow are weaker, that gay men are predators, that gay men are seeking a sexual outlet with straight men, and I think it is that kind of misconception that is driving that needless clinging to Don't Ask Don't Tell."

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One reason McCain’s been so stubborn on this has to do with his own personal history. McCain is so inseparable from his biography as the veteran’s veteran in the Senate; he’s so tightly wrapped in macho misperceptions about gays and lesbians, so much a captive of his own generation that he believes, deeply and at a cellular level, that to agree to DADT’s repeal is to compromise his own red-blood, raw-meat, hetero military manhood — what’s shaped him and his political persona for decades.

Despite the senator’s associations with the family in question, the fact is that Mark Bingham and what he represents to this nation, the agony he may have spared this nation, are a huge problem for John McCain and others of like mind. He’s been trying to square an unsquareable circle: working to keep this overdue social change from coming to the armed forces he claims to revere and represent, at the same time he claims to honor Bingham, one of the lesser-sung American heroes of 9/11, a man whose fullest measure of devotion was equal on that day to that of any American soldier under arms anywhere on the planet.

A man who just happened to be gay.

Mark Bingham is the inconvenient fact that counters the essential fallacy of McCain’s objection to DADT’s repeal — the young, virile, decisive, intelligent, successful, self-sustaining contrary to the idiotic sub rosa fears of McCain’s generation, and those before it: the gay as lisping, unwashed, unprincipled sexual predator, seeking out his victims in dark places while sporting a whip and assless chaps and listening to the Village People; the gay soldier as undisciplined anomaly, an unwelcome distraction in the ranks and a crippling liability in combat, a security risk prone to insubordination or cowardice. The gay person as Other, as something to fear.

McCain’s got no answer for Bingham’s singular act of bravery; no amount of the senator’s bellicose intransigence can undo that heartfelt eulogy in 2001. And now, for one of the first times since his 2008 presidential fail, the senator has been called on to assume his old brand name — the Maverick® — and all that it means, or should mean. Sadly, his vote on Thursday proves he’s at least consistent; he’s no more maverick now than he was in 2008.

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DADT’s nowhere close to being discussed in the next week, when the 111th Congress ends. But you never know: Collins, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mark Udall of Colorado are sponsoring a stand-alone bill, separated from the Defense bill. Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post reported Friday that they’re prepared to stay through Christmas to get it on the floor.

If that happens, we’ll hear more sadly standard deviations from the truth from the go-slow lobby, including McCain. And other people will experience the collateral damage of DADT. People like Norm, who posted a Dec. 7 comment in The Advocate saying that recently, “I was notified that I was being terminated at the Madison [Wisc.] VA hospital for telling a patient I was gay. It seems DADT applies when an employee of the VA health system, too.”

But whether it happens that soon or not, when the time comes to take a vote on repeal on this corrosive law, and it will, John McCain will have to decide whether and how badly he wants to re-earn his reputation as a principled political iconoclast, someone who’ll do what’s morally right instead of what’s politically expedient.

Someone who’ll do what’s needed for an armed forces diminished and depleted by a law that shouldn’t exist.

Someone who’ll do what’s fiscally responsible for a military that, by one estimate, has spent between $290 million and more than $500 billion million to keep DADT in place.

Alice Hoagland, the picture of a charitable soul, is betting he will. The man who said “I may very well owe my life to Mark" definitely owes Mark Bingham, and Americans like him, their chance to be all that they can be.

This is McCain’s chance — maybe one of the last, best opportunities he’ll ever have as a senator to achieve something powerful and lasting and potentially transformative — to man up and be the Maverick he’s claimed to be.

Image credits: Mark Bingham: via Report cover: Defense Department (public domain). Hoagland: MSNBC. LGB estimate chart: via The Williams Institute. DADT discharge and U.S. poll snapshot graphics: Center for American Progress.

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