The Senate and Kelso's Stars

April 22, 1994

At the heart of effective leadership lies accountability -- especially in the military, where leadership failure can carry a mortal price. This week, the U.S. Senate had a chance to press that lesson home by insisting Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the retiring ++ chief of naval operations, take responsibility for the Tailhook scandal, which occurred on his watch. The final vote, 54-43, fell short of success, but came much closer than anticipated.

In a remarkable show of unity, the Senate's seven women members joined forces to make a point about sexual harassment in the Navy. Officers like Admiral Kelso are customarily granted by Congress the privilege of keeping all four stars after retirement, rather than automatically reverting to two stars. Financially, the difference represents an additional $1,150 each month, but even without it the admiral would receive a handsome pension. So the Senate forum was an appropriate one for a debate about sexual harassment, military leadership and accountability. Despite the result, the message was delivered that Congress no longer will routinely forgive "good-old-boy" practices.

Admiral Kelso's handling of the Tailhook scandal has drawn widespread criticism. He was present at the 1991 convention where women who had been invited to attend the meeting in Las Vegas were then subjected to humiliating treatment. Once the episode came to light, there were some early resignations -- and a number of ambivalent investigations.

Defense Secretary William Perry has faulted Admiral Kelso for "a failure of leadership" in his handling of the Tailhook scandal. Even so, Mr. Perry recommended that the Senate grant Admiral Kelso his stars. That is not surprising, since the defense secretary represents a commander-in-chief whose own history dictates that he tread carefully where military brass is concerned.

Some people may argue that the Senate's debate demeaned a distinguished officer. Admiral Kelso may have ended his 38-year career a few months early, but Lt. Paula Coughlin, the woman who first brought the affair to life, saw hers cut short by many years. In February, she announced her resignation from the Navy, saying that Tailhook "and the covert attacks on me that followed have stripped me of my ability to serve."

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