DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEWs of Bill Clinton’s My Life; Jimmy Carter’s Our Endangered Values; Carter’s Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid; Colin Powell’s My American Journey


Author (or Editor): William Jefferson Clinton

Title: My Life

Fiction? N - autobiography

Publisher:  Vintage

Date: 2004, 2005 (Preface and Afterword)

ISBN:  ISBN 1-4000-3003-X

Series Name:

Physical description: Paper 969 pg + index in paper

Relevance to doaskdotell: gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell”


I’ll focus here on former president Bill Clinton’s record on gay issues, most notably his attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military right after his 1993 inauguration.

There are a lot of references to gay issues in the index. For example, in 1976 Arkansas was revamping its criminal code to eliminate “status offenses.”  Conservatives balked at the idea of removing sodomy laws, and a tense battle ensued of various maneuvers. Clinton lost that battle, although at the time it didn’t seem to mean much. But the idea might have set up the logical mental dichotomy that would stimulate his idea of lifting the gay ban, the distinction between “status” and “conduct.”  Unfortunately, the politicians in 1993 would try to blur this as a distinction without a difference (or vice versa).

Clinton indeed gives a detailed and insightful yet succinct account of the volleys over gays in the military at the start of his first term, from pp 483-486.  I could say that the passage, in its writing style, could make good fodder for an SAT or PRAXIS reading comprehension test, since the meaning is still subtle. We’ve all heard a lot about the objections from Nunn and Moskos over “privacy in the barracks,” but less about the purely “moral” objections to homosexuality from Marine Corps General Carl Mundy and even Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd even claimed that the Roman Empire had fallen because of the acceptance of homosexuality among its warriors—and this is incorrect; it probably fell because of the use of lead in its water pipes.

Clinton finally mentions the “live and let live” policy compromise of July 1993. That is the name that I gave it in Chapter 4 of my own book, and it even got an honorable mention in the 1997 movie Starship Troopers. Clinton gives a terse summary:

“Don’t ask don’t tell” basically said that if you say you’re gay, it’s presumed that you intend to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and you can be removed unless you convince your commander you’re celibate and therefore not in violation of the code. But if you don’t say you’re gay, the following things will not lead to your removal: marching in a gay-rights parade in civilian clothes, hanging out in gay bars or with known homosexuals, being on homosexual mailing lists, and living with a person of the same sex who is a beneficiary on your life insurance policy. On paper, the military had moved a long way to “live and let live,” while holding on to that it couldn’t acknowledge gays without approving of homosexuality and compromising morale and cohesion.”

In 1993, the focus of compromise seemed to be a “zone of privacy,” where each servicemember would have his or her private life and the ability to choose adult significant other. The difficulty in making this work without openness would become apparent in the mid and late 1990s as the Internet grew and as sexuality became perceived more as a vehicle of selection and self-expression.

Clinton goes on to admit that the policy often backfired, with anti-gay commands conducting the notorious witch-hunts that SLDN would have to fight—some commanders would test the policy if they could get away with it.  Clinton also admits that his political opponents (‘dem Republicans) would make it look like the military ban was his only issue, when most of his time was actually spent on the economy and health care. Clinton insists that Congress would have overridden his veto, and gays seem unappreciative of his efforts, even though he made real advances in civilian security clearances (although Frank Kameny has said on media broadcasts that real progress had been made in the previous Bush administration).

What is most remarkable, of course, is the idea that the military assumed that accepting semi-open gays would imply approval of homosexuality. Why cannot the military follow orders and assume that its public attitude is neutral? I developed this idea myself in Chapter 2 of my book, when I discussed the draft.  Typically, society has not taken freedom for granted, has presumed that it must be earned by rites of passage for men, and the military always had a big say in what these rites should be. 

The afterword gives an autumnal recapitulation, as he recreates the tribunal of his own coronary bypass surgery. In the end, he says, “every person counts, deserves a chance, and has a responsible role to play.”

Bill Clinton had also written the brief book Clinton, William J., President of the United States. Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1996; Hilary had written It Takes a Village, about child rearing, a topic very relevant to teaching and the problems today with “no child left behind.” But that’s another discussion. 

Clinton’s mention of the life insurance beneficiary provision is interesting. I was working for a life insurance company at the time that I wrote the “White House Letter” and oddly I did not consider mentioning that specific potential problem.

Visit discussion of 1993 debate from “Do Ask Do Tell” book

View President Clinton’s July 19, 1993 announcement

View 1993 Defense Authorization Bill (Appendix 10)

View my 1993 White House letter


Bill Clinton, while president, authored Clinton, William J., President of the United States. Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1996.  His wife Hillary authored It Takes a Village.

Jimmy Carter: Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) ISBN 0-7432-8457-7, 212 pages, hardbound, indexed. 

I lived in Greenwich Village for the first two years of the Carter presidency, 1978 being a particularly memorable year (I remember the Camp David meeting that Carter arranged between Begin and Sadat), and the next two years in Dallas, when the Iran hostage crisis occurred. Of course, we all know the history since then. During that time, the pastor at the moderate First Baptist Church in Washington (where I grew up) counseled the president that conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention would pillory him for “secular humanism” for his reasonable stands on most social issues. I remember, on a weekend visit “home,” attending a Sunday School class taught by President Carter in the Church sanctuary balcony in 1977, the lesson on the “divorce chapter.” Carter talks about the Maranatha Baptish Church near his home in Georgia; this is a moderate church that he helped form, and he feels it is closer to Baptist tradition. In a similar fashion, Everett Goodwin formed the Baptist Fellowship of Washington DC in the mid 1990s shortly after leaving the same First Baptist Church. I often attended the Fellowship, during the same time period that I worked on my first book.

In the mid 1990s, I also heard Mr. Carter speak at the Washington Cathedral, when he talked about “service” in conjunction for Habitat for Humanity. Now, in this book, he manages to tie practically every major issue together, which is quite unusual and remarkable.

His thesis is pretty transparent. The “Religious Right” is using its pretense of morality and arrogant intolerance to try to get its own way. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Mr. Carter discusses fundamentalists and evangelicals, and soon moves on to the social issues, and provides an original poem, “A Contemplation of What Has Been Created and Why.”

Chapter 7 is “Sins of Divorce and Homosexuality,” and Carter summarizes the right’s preoccupation with homosexuality in simple fashion. It makes an easy mark to try to polarize the public, which on its own has grown more accepting of homosexuality. At the end of the chapter, he makes a rather libertarian proposal.

“Rather than letting the controversial issue [gay marriage] remain so divisive among our citizens, perhaps we should separate the two basic approaches, by letting governments define and protect equal rights for citizens, including those of “civil unions,” and letting church congregations define ‘holy matrimony.’”

He moves on to the big international issues, maintaining that hawkish Bush administration is wrong in waging preventative war in Iraq when there was never any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, then discusses the environment, energy, and global warming, and finally ends to the heart of the crisis, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots.  Here he points out the irresponsibility of the Bush practice of staggering deficits while allowing huge tax cuts for the rich.

The question then is of moral leadership. A superpower, he says, is like a great person. Doing the right thing need not involve sacrifice; he also says that. But it is the mapping of the public policy back to citizenship responsibilities of the individual that is indeed controversial.

The religious right gets away with its diversion of picking on homosexuality partly because, in today’s world, male homosexuality symbolizes in a deep-seated way a pungent problem: personal autonomy and self-promotion and narcissism without appropriate level of family responsibility (primarily through openness to having children) and commitment to others. Of course, the same “sin” is created on a much grander scale by heterosexuals. But, the Gospel seems very clear on its expectation of socialization, shared sacrifice, and connection to others ahead in line of self-promotion. Given that kind of commitment, the Bible seems to accept some inequality in exchange for a sum or personal attitudes that will take care of people, even at the compromise of what we have come to see as freedom (autonomy). It may well be that the moral crisis can only be resolved at a personal level by every one of us first.

Former President Carter has authored many other books, including Why Not the Best? (1975), and An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (2001)

Jimmy Carter. Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. ISBN 0-7432-8502-6  Historical Chronology, 17 Chapters, 7 appendices, indexed. 264 pages, hardcover.  The title of this book generated enormous controversy, and the book was the subject of the film Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains. Carter, while praising Israel as a democracy within its own society, pulls no punches in blaming Israel for bad faith in its treatment of Palestinians, expropriating rights without compensation. Some key quotes:

“It’s obvious that the Palestinians will be left with no territory in which to establish a viable state, but completely enclosed within the barrier of the occupied Jordan River valley.”  P 196

“The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning and abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.” P. 216

Blogger discussion is here.

Colin Powell, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995) ISBN 0-679-43296-5. 645 pgs hardcover, indexed. This is Colin Powell’s autobiography, in four distinct sections that trace his boyhood and his rise through the military, starting in the Vietnam era, to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Of course, his story is touted as a major example of how the military promoted the careers of African Americans, after Truman’s 1948 integration. Powell provides several references to “gays in the military” and his testimony before Sam Nunn in Congress in 1993, and his being questioned even by Barney Frank. In one place (p 547) he writes:

“If I have heterosexual young men and women who choose not to have to be in close proximity because of different sexual preferences, am I then forced to face the problem of different accommodations for homosexuals and heterosexuals, and by sex within the homosexual community?”

“Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic.,, Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.”

The first of these quotes would have compelled four sets of quarters instead of two. It is interesting see Powell discuss these sensitive points in rather objectivist language.


Related:  Belkin, Aaron and Bateman, Geoffrey. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military; Halley, Janet:  Don’t: A Reader’s Guide to the Miltary’s Anti-Gay Policy   Goodwin’s Baptists in the Balance;  Gomes  The Good Book


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