On Meet the Press yesterday, Gore adviser Robert Shrum* attempted manfully to deny that his candidate had ever suggested he’d make support of his policy on gays in the military a “litmus test” for nomination to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All Gore was doing, Shrum said, was restating the constitutional principle that the Chiefs are obliged to obey their commander in chief:
What he said … was that he would insist that people appointed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree to support his policy as president. He never said in the New Hampshire debate that he would inquire into their personal convictions. His litmus test is a constitutional one, civilian control of the military … I defy you to find a place in that transcript where he ever said he would inquire into someone’s personal position. … I’ll bet you 10 bucks. Find him saying that he’s going to examine their personal convictions.
Nice try, Bob! But the transcript of the New Hampshire debate makes it pretty damn clear that Gore was saying exactly what Shrum said he didn’t say. The video clip played by MTP host Tim Russert might not have nailed the issue down (it showed Gore declaring, “I would insist before appointing anybody to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that that individual support my policy.”). But the discussion that precedes the clip does. The whole context was Peter Jennings’ question about whether Gore or Bradley would apply a “litmus test” to Joint Chiefs nominees like that occasionally applied, controversially, to Supreme Court nominees. In the context of the Supreme Court, of course, “litmus test” clearly means an inquiry into a potential nominee’s personal convictions–on, say, abortion or civil rights–prior to their nomination.
Gore said he had “rejected the notion of litmus tests on the Supreme Court by saying there are ways to find out the kind of judgment somebody has without posing specific litmus tests.” He then said:
I think that it’s a little different where the Joint Chiefs of Staff are concerned, because you’re not interfering with an independent judicial decision. As commander in chief, a president is giving orders, in effect, or he is the superior of the officers that are reporting to the commander in chief in the chain of command. I would try to bring about the kind of change in policy, on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, that President Harry Truman brought about after World War II in integrating the military. And I think that would require those who wanted to serve in on the position of–on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be in agreement with that policy. So, yes. [Emphasis added.]
This isn’t quite a smoking gun, but it’s mighty close. As Gore’s boss might say, it all depends on what the definition of “in agreement with” is. It was clear to me, watching the debate, that Gore meant that the nominee’s personal views had to be “in agreement.” For one thing, that is what “in agreement” means. It’s also what the explicit analogy with the Supreme Court litmus test implies. (Otherwise Gore would have said, “You don’t need a litmus test, because they have to obey the policy whatever their personal views are.” Or he could have used the word “obey” or “support” instead of “be in agreement with.”)
This interpretation is reinforced by the reality of the gays-in-the-military debate: The president can’t just order the Chiefs to change the “don’t-ask” policy, since that policy has now been written into law by Congress, and changing it requires congressional action. That’s why it would be so important for a president to know that his Joint Chiefs nominees personally support his policy (so they’ll be on his side in the battle with Congress) and not just that they will obey him (which wouldn’t do the president any good).
Bob: Don’t you owe someone $10?
*Conflict of interest disclosure: Shrum and his wife, Marylouise Oates, are friends of mine. I’ve eaten dinner at their house; I’ve even stayed there when in Washington. God, it’s all too embarrassing. I think Shrum may have been a good soldier in this instance, attempting to defend an untenable position. But in a very brief phone conversation, he said he’d read the whole transcript, and he seemed sincere in sticking to his interpretation. I admit I haven’t been so understanding of others, such as James Carville, who haven’t fed me so many meals.