Robert Gates stepped into the role of President of the Boy Scouts of America with as impressive a resume as a person could hope to have: He’s been the President of Texas A&M University, the Director of the CIA, the Deputy National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of Defense under both Presidents Bush and Obama. He’s a high-profile leader for an organization in need of some high-profile leadership, as the Boy Scouts continue to face an ongoing PR struggle regarding their continued exclusion of gay men serving as scoutmasters. 

That’s something that Gates—who, as Secretary of Defense, oversaw the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—says he’d have supported overturning. Talking to the Associated Press on Friday, the day after he stepped into his new role with the organization, he said

“I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made,” Gates said. “I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers from across the entire country.” Last year, the Boy Scouts National Council voted to allow gay youths but not adults.

At the Boy Scouts national annual meeting, Gates made it clear that he recognized it would not be good for the organization to revisit the decision. “In all candor, I would have supported going further, as I did in opening the way for gays to serve in the CIA and in the military,” he said in a speech. “Given the strong feelings — the passion — involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to reopen the membership issue or try to take last year’s decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement — with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own.”

The important thing now, said Gates, is to make sure the Boy Scouts provides “a welcoming and safe environment for gay youth, a place where they can benefit from scouting and not face bullying or disrespect.”

The Irving-based Boy Scouts of America are an organization built on traditionalism (Texas Monthly senior executive editor and Eagle Scout Brian Sweany wrote in 2012 that “the Boy Scouts were so wholly noncontroversial and so purposefully old-fashioned that our biggest problem was proving that we hadn’t stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting”), but that traditionalism has also led the 2.7 million-member-strong youth organization to embrace exclusions that are hard to justify in 2014. (Sweany: “In the organization’s determination to stand by so-called traditional values, it was embracing the worst instincts of an earlier generation, something that ran counter to the very things I thought I had been taught about tolerance and acceptance.“) 

All of that makes Gates’ stance uniquely controversial/non-controversial: He does a fine job of saying the right things, and he’s got a resume that backs up his words, but he also manages to avoid actually taking a position. “This organization I’ve just been tasked with leading has the wrong policy” is a bold statement, but following it up with, “and I’m not gonna do anything about that” means that anyone who’s nervous about it can rest assured that it’s just a philosophical disagreement. 

Of course, the Boy Scouts of America is probably growing increasingly aware that its current policy is ultimately untenable. Funders—including major donors like Disney—have pulled out of the organization as a result of the ban on gay scoutmasters. The fact that they looked to Gates for leadership at this time, the guy who, for all of his storied career highlights, will probably go down in history as the dude who implemented the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and the fact that the very first thing he did on the job was talk about the wrongheaded policy—suggests that perhaps this is merely an opening salvo in a fight to get the Scouts out of a close-minded past and into the future. 

That’ll remain to be seen, and it probably won’t come quickly.

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)