Home Alone -- and Ailing

March 19, 1993

Les Aspin's pacemaker implant surgery "went perfectly well . . . perfectly fine" yesterday, according to his physician. "He can return to regular activity" in a week. If that is true, it is good news for the secretary, President Clinton, the Pentagon and the country. We say "if that is true" because in recent weeks when Mr. Aspin's health has disabled him, the first official comments were overly optimistic, misleading or false.

Earlier this week when the secretary was hospitalized, a Pentagon announcement blamed "recurrence of a bronchial condition." In fact his symptoms were heart-related. A day before, his inability to make a scheduled congressional appearance was attributed not to ailment but to the weather. And last month, when the defense secretary was hospitalized because of a heart condition, the official Pentagon word was that he had a mild problem and was improving, when in fact he was in an intensive-care unit and had to remain there for several days.

Everyone likes privacy when it comes to intimate health details, but surely Mr. Aspin understands that in this case the public wants to know it is being told the truth about the top man running this country's armed services. If the public -- and the military -- can't have confidence that the secretary is or soon will be completely up to speed, the problems facing the military establishment are going to get worse.

The problems are already bad enough. Not only is the secretary of defense ailing. The service secretaries and many other senior Pentagon assistants have not even been nominated. (Secretary Aspin is "home alone," Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., quipped a few weeks ago.) Also, the service chiefs, including the soon-to-retire chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell, are not in sync with the president on high-visibility issues. "Not in sync" would be a polite way to put the relations between the commander in chief and service personnel. On Mr. Clinton's recent visit to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, some enlisted men and officers were openly contemptuous.

In addition to all the above, Senator Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is not a solid supporter of the president. For quite different reasons, neither is Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Base closings, budget cuts, gays in the military, challenges around the world that require military policy-planning, not action, are the sorts of issues that require the civilian administration to be thoroughly in command.

Having a pacemaker is not disabling by itself. Neither is heart disease. Secretary Aspin's predecessor, Dick Cheney, came to the Pentagon having had by-pass surgery, and held up well. We hope Mr. Aspin will do the same in the bright light of public disclosure.

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