Letter? What Letter?

Considering the circumspect tenor of his campaign, Bill Clinton's first major policy decision ranked as a doozy. Just one week after his triumph over George Bush, the president-elect stunned a phalanx of reporters massed around the State House rotunda in Little Rock, Arkansas, by promising to lift the 48-year-old ban on homosexuals in the military.

To the policy nabobs on his transition team, the announcement came as little more than the reiteration of a campaign pledge. But it immediately triggered a a sharp backlash within conservative ranks. Hawkish members of Congress waxed paranoid about security risks. Pentagon chieftains, who spend an estimated $27 million annually upholding the ban, fretted about the effects on morale and vowed to block the proposal. Officials from outgoing Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell issued the time-worn sound bites of dismay.

The president-elect, predictably, backed away from his original pledge, edging toward the consensus-mongering for which he is already renowned. Aides assured military leaders Clinton would moderate the pace and scope of his initiative in order to gain broad-based support.

At the American Civil Liberties Union, Clinton's initial promise elicited whoops of joy -- whoops that grew increasingly subdued as Clinton hedged.

For ACLU leaders, who have long protested discrimination in the military, the post-election promise marked an unprecedented political opportunity, and they quickly sought to rally support for the president-elect. Their most dramatic effort to date has been the placement of two full-page advertisements in the New York Times, paid for by gay music mogul David Geffen. The first ad, which ran Sunday, December 13, includes the endorsement of Clinton's plan by six national education organizations, 32 institutions of higher learning, and 125 college or university presidents.

The listing was the byproduct of a letter sent out this past April to 250 school leaders by the ACLU, seeking support for the movement to end military discrimination based on sexual orientation. Among the academic luminaries who voiced support were the presidents of such esteemed ivory towers as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and officers from more far-flung outposts, including tiny Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and Mills College in Oakland, California. All told, officials from more than 30 states responded, and almost a dozen penned personal letters of support.

"What we're trying to tell Clinton is that there's significant support out there for lifting this ban," explains Phil Gutis, ACLU spokesman.

At least in states other than Florida.
For of all the academic honchos who had a chance to lend their voices to the cause, not one of the six Floridians contacted responded. Not Edward "Tad" Foote II, president of the University of Miami. Not Frank Borkowski, president the University of South Florida in Tampa. And not leaders of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Tallahassee's Florida State University, Gainesville's University of Florida, or the University of Tampa.

Foote did not have time to discuss the issue with New Times. "I don't mean to be blunt, but the president does have priorities," explains Catherine Sell, his apologetic executive secretary. "He might respond if you were a chairman of the board. But his schedule is just so crazy. I'm very sorry."

There's a chance, of course, that Foote mistook the letter of solicitation for a piece of junk mail, or that an overzealous secretary threw it away before it crossed the busy president's desk.

ACLU spokesman Gutis doubts it. "Oh no, the letter we sent out looked very businesslike. We used a legal-size envelope, stock paper, and every letter was personally signed by the director of the program. Plus, we sent out at least one follow-up letter to everyone who did not respond the first time."

At the University of South Florida, Frank Borkowski, who released a memo last year formally including sexual orientation in the school's equal-opportunity policy, remembers receiving the ACLU letters. But he chose not to respond to the missives, says Dan Casseday, the school's director of media relations, because of an agreement not to discuss the school's nondiscrimination policy publicly. (Casseday did not clarify how protesting the military's ban on gays would violate a pact not to discuss USF's nondiscrimination policy.)

Unfortunately, the ACLU never bothered to contact the one Floridian who would have been most likely to offer his support: Florida International University president Mitch Maidique. ACLU spokesman Gutis says he doesn't know why the organization overlooked FIU, whose enrollment of more than 23,000 students makes it the state's fourth-largest univeristy. "The guy who made up the mailing list we use doesn't work here any more," Gutis reports.

Dan Kalmason, FIU's director of media relations, was likewise in the dark. "I assume we were overlooked because we don't have a football team," he jokes.

The oversight is doubly ironic, given that just two weeks ago Maidique was the recipient of an award from the local chapter of the ACLU. Then again, local ACLU staffers were never informed of the national effort to solicit support from educators, either.

Despite the de facto boycott by Florida educators, Gutis says the ad is having an impact. Dozens of letters have arrived at ACLU's New York City headquarters in the past week. More important, Clinton himself took note. "Somebody showed him the ad during his economic conference, and apparently he loved it," Gutis says. "At least, that's what David Geffen said, and he was there.