President Obama took the historic step Friday of naming an openly gay man to head the Army, a nomination that, if confirmed, would be a first for the nation’s military services.
In light of past controversies over gay military service and President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Obama’s promotion of Army Acting Undersecretary Eric Fanning to the largest service’s top post could face hurdles in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Several GOP presidential candidates have criticized the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling, in a 5-4 decision, that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, and homosexuality remains a divisive topic within the largely conservative military.
“Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role,” Obama said in nominating Fanning to be secretary of the Army. “I am grateful for his commitment to our men and women in uniform, and I am confident he will lead America’s soldiers with distinction. I look forward to working with Eric to keep our Army the very best in the world.”
Fanning, 47, who has held a handful of lower Pentagon posts, would replace current Army Secretary John McHugh, a former New York state congressman who has held the job for six years.
Praising Fanning’s “sound judgment and insight,” McHugh said: “Our soldiers, civilians and their families will benefit greatly from his leadership.”
While the Senate confirmed McHugh, who had been the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, by unanimous voice vote in September 2009, Fanning is unlikely to enjoy such a smooth confirmation path.
A native of Kalamazo, Mich. and a Dartmouth College graduate, Fanning served as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter from mid-February through June, when Carter named him acting undersecretary of the Army.
Fanning was a top White House political operative under President Bill Clinton.
In congratulating Fanning for his nomination to the top post, Carter put the Senate on notice against any political opposition.
“President Obama has made an excellent choice, and I hope for a quick Senate confirmation,” Carter said.
Because he was in an acting, or temporary, role as Army undersecretary, Fanning did not face a Senate confirmation vote before assuming that post on June 30. He also served as acting secretary of the Air Force for six months in 2013.
The Senate did confirm Fanning by a voice vote as undersecretary of the Air Force in April 2013, but he would hold a much more visible post in becoming a top Pentagon official as secretary of the Army, the oldest and largest of the country’s five main military services.
Although the number of soldiers on active duty recently fell below 500,000 for the first time since 1996, to 490,000, the Army still makes up 36 percent of American military personnel.
Gay and human rights groups hailed Obama’s selection of Fanning to lead the Army.
“History continues to be written, and equality marches forward with the nomination of an openly gay man to serve in this significantly important role,” said Ashley Broadway-Mack, head of the American Military Partner Association, which represents gay military families.
The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, also applauded Fanning’s promotion.
“Considering the tremendous struggles that LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Americans have faced within the Department of Defense, Fanning’s nomination is deeply significant,” said Chad Griffin, the group’s head. “This is a sign of hope and a demonstration of continued progress towards fairness and equality in our nation’s armed forces.”
490,000 The number of active duty soldiers, making the Army the largest U.S. military service.
However, more than four hours after news broke of Obama’s nomination of Fanning, there was little public praise of the choice from lawmakers or from current or former Pentagon leaders, save from Carter, McHugh, the man he would replace, and Gen. Mark Milley, who as Army chief of staff would report directly to Fanning.
Pope Francis, who will address Congress next week as part of a visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia, also has put the issue of gay rights in the news by declining to repudiate homosexuality with the same fervor as most of his predecessors.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked Friday why Obama had invited a gay Episcopal bishop and a transgender Catholic activist to join a South Lawn ceremony welcoming Pope Francis.
“We would expect a wide variety of Americans who are enthused about the opportunity to see the pope,” Earnest said. “And I think that reflects the pope’s stature and the significance of his visit, and the way that he has inspired so many Americans, including a bunch of us that aren’t Catholic.”
Fanning, who was White House associate political director in 1996 under Clinton, has been active in the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports homosexual, bisexual and transgender candidates for elective office.
Fanning has also urged the Pentagon to adopt a policy that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Clinton set the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in February 1994. That policy, which was controversial from the start and caused some confusion in the ranks, prohibited discrimination against perceived homosexuality in the military, but it also prohibited gays from serving openly in the armed services.
Congress passed legislation repealing the policy in December 2010, and a federal appellate court rejected its ban on openly gay military service seven months later. Days after the July 2011 court ruling, Obama sent Congress official certification that openly gay service would not harm U.S. military readiness.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014: @jamesmartinrose