A month ago, Vanity Fair magazine published a vicious, petty story about John McCain. Written by Todd S. Purdum, an individual who has had extensive access to McCain for much of the Arizona senator’s recent political career, the story amounted to little more than a knife in the back by a reporter McCain had trusted.

Basically, the story suggested that McCain was not the man he used to be — or, worse, that he had never been the man he seemed to be: an independent-minded, principled public servant who eschewed the self-serving convenience of politics as usual.

According to Purdum, the man long seen as a “maverick” Republican who often challenged the hard-core conservative base of his party traded independence for expedience when he faced a conservative challenger in the August senatorial primary, selling out to the GOP’s right wing to ensure his nomination for a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.

He won the primary by 24 percentage points. The price of victory, Purdum said, was McCain’s credibility.

It was during the primary campaign that McCain apparently changed his position on the issue of gays in the military.

The onetime Vietnam prisoner of war had previously indicated he would be open to the idea of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 17-year-old policy that prevents gays from serving openly in the armed forces; now, he’s an outspoken opponent of repeal.

It is possible, of course, that McCain simply changed his mind.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he was a Navy pilot; his father and grandfather were admirals in the Navy. After his plane was shot down, he endured, persevered, lived by a code and survived more than five years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Vietnamese.

A military with openly gay soldiers and sailors would certainly not be the military that McCain knew as an officer’s son, as a pilot in combat, or as a reliable ally of the Pentagon in the Senate and, before that, in the House of Representatives.

Or would it?

Homosexuality is a fact of life; more and more people understand that, and discrimination against gays is increasingly unacceptable in our society.

Read Gerald Clarke’s biography of famously gay author Truman Capote (“Capote: A Biography”), in fact, and you can quickly arrive at the conclusion that there are far more gays and lesbians in the world than you ever imagined.

Without question, many gay Americans have served as members of this country’s armed forces throughout our history. So let’s not kid ourselves that this issue is somehow new.

What’s new is the openness with which gays declare their sexual orientation, and the need for all segments of society to be fair and open in dealing with this issue.

Given the cultural and social changes this country has experienced in recent years, it’s difficult to see why it should it matter one whit if someone who wants to serve our country, who wants to put his or her life on the line in defense of the nation, is gay.

Maybe Sen. McCain is still trying to pacify the right wing. Maybe he’s just an old soldier who will not let old-soldier myth fade away.

Too bad he did not stick with the others he has partnered with over the last few years in a spirit of bipartisanship. Too bad he has abandoned Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins on this issue. And too bad another friend of theirs, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has backed away from earlier statements indicating he would be open to repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” if military leaders recommended repeal.

This is the 21st century. We live in an era when gay marriage will almost certainly become legal in most states. Sen. Collins is on the right side of this issue.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” has outlived its usefulness — if it ever had any. Top military officials are ready to do away with it. Commander in Chief Obama is ready to do away with it. We need to do away with it.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

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