Last month, Obama told this magazine that his slow, methodical plan to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) had worked. The proof, he said, was that “not only did we get the law passed, but it's caused almost no controversy.” The president defended his decision not to stop the firings by executive order with the argument that he needed time to build Pentagon buy-in. Had he “just moved ahead with an executive order, there would have been a huge blowback that might have set back the cause for a long time.” Obama first set up this revisionist narrative back in 2010, on the day he proudly signed repeal of the gay ban into law. He told The Advocate that “things don’t always go according to your plans” in Washington, “and so when they do,” it can be “pleasantly surprising.”
Yet perhaps no one was more surprised that DADT ended in 2010 than the president himself. As a new academic volume (a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality edited by former military officers) shows, ending the ban was not the White House plan at all for 2010. Obama’s plan, such as it was, was to push repeal off until 2011, when it was unlikely to have passed Congress. Indeed, the real story of what happened in the effort to pass the most important (and only the second ever) piece of pro-gay federal legislation is not as flattering to Obama as his own narrative. The real lesson it provides is that it's often incumbent on activists to force political leaders to get things done.