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David Danbom, Published December 30 2010

Pride or regret over 'don't ask, don't' tell vote

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These were fine ideals, but in 1776 – when nearly 15 percent of the people were held as slaves and the female portion of the free population had no political and few economic rights – there was a huge gap between them and reality.

The greatness of America, though, lies not in the fact that it has ideals but in its willingness over the course of its existence as an independent nation to bring the real closer to the ideal.

Realizing our ideals meant abolishing slavery and making the former slaves citizens. It meant granting the right to vote to women. It meant abolishing segregation and economic discrimination against women, minorities and the disabled.

None of these accomplishments was easy to achieve. Each involved years of struggle, inside of the political system and out. Because these issues were controversial, Congress avoided them as long as it could. Members of Congress much prefer securing earmarks for the local petting zoo or passing resolutions in favor of motherhood to addressing issues threatening economic interests and cultural traditions.

But eventually Congress can’t avoid important questions any longer, and when it resolves them, it usually does so in the right way. In the United States there is a bias in favor of expanding liberty and equality and against restricting them, and that is a good thing.

Once Congress finally nudges reality a little closer to Jefferson’s ideal in this area or that, members on the side of freedom are invariably proud of what they have done. Those who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, always remembered their vote and considered it one of the most consequential they ever cast. Those who opposed spent the rest of their lives apologizing, explaining and denying.

We had another Jeffersonian moment recently when Congress voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. DADT was ungainly, largely unworkable, and harmful to the national interest, depriving the country of the service of thousands of men and women, many of whom had special skills. But most harmful was its embodiment of an invidious distinction between heterosexual and homosexual citizens.

North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy voted to repeal DADT. Pomeroy has cast thousands of votes over the course of his career. I imagine he is proud of some and not so proud of others, but I expect that when he reflects on his years in Congress, he will be particularly proud of voting for liberty and equality when he had the opportunity.

Congressman Colin Peterson, from the neighboring Minnesota 7th District, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against repeal. I wonder whether, when he comes to the end of his career, Peterson will take pride in voting against expanding the promise of American life?

Danbom, an occasional contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages, is a retired university history professor. E-mail danbom@cableone.net.