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Gay man backed for Navy secretary

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Some top retired military leaders and some Democrats in Congress are backing William White, chief operating officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, to be the next secretary of the Navy -- a move that would put the first openly gay person at the top of one of the services.

The secretary's job is a civilian position, so it would not run afoul of the ban on gays serving in the military, but it would renew focus on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office.

"He would be phenomenal," said retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, pointing to Mr. White's extensive background as a fundraiser for veterans' and military causes.

Retired members of the Joint Chiefs have contacted Mr. Obama's transition team to urge them to pick Mr. White, and members of Congress said he would be a good choice for a service secretary.

"He's very capable," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, whose district includes the Intrepid Museum, a retired aircraft carrier berthed on the Hudson River in New York City.

Mr. Nadler said Mr. White has become a friend of the military, and particularly the service members and their families, both through the Intrepid and through Fisher Houses, which offer a place to stay so families can be close to military members who are receiving medical care.

A spokeswoman for the Obama campaign said they won't comment on personnel decisions.

Others are in consideration, such as Juan Garcia, a former naval aviator who was defeated for re-election to his seat in the Texas House. Mr. Garcia is friends with Mr. Obama from their Harvard Law School days and was chairman of Mr. Obama's Texas campaign.

Democratic members of Congress from Texas sent a letter to Mr. Obama earlier this month supporting Mr. Garcia for the position.

A spokesman said Mr. White would not comment.

If Mr. White were nominated, he likely would face questions during a Senate confirmation hearing over how his nomination would square with the military's policies on gays.

In 1993, President Clinton signed into law a ban, and White House and congressional leaders settled on a new policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." Under it, gay service members must keep their sexuality private or face expulsion. About 12,500 people have been discharged under the policy.

Supporters of the ban said nominating Mr. White would send the wrong signal.

"It's a matter of judgment, and I think that would be very poor judgment on the part of the commander in chief," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes gays serving in the military. "It would be very demoralizing to the troops."

But Mr. Nadler said the military policy that says gays are a threat to unit cohesion is "nonsense," and it shouldn't apply to Mr. White anyway because as secretary "he's not in the foxhole, he's not on the ship."

Gen. Shelton called Mr. White's work at both the Intrepid Museum and the Fisher House Foundation "legendary."

"He has always been a staunch advocate of our men and women in uniform," Gen. Shelton said.

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