Pulling Rank

April 24, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a law-and-order Republican from Texas, and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a liberal Democrat from Illinois, don't have much in common on ideological grounds. But last week they and the Senate's five other women members closed ranks in an impressive show of unity.

Together, they sent a warning shot across the bow of the U.S. Navy. They fell short of their goal -- denying Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, retiring chief of naval operations, the honor of taking all four of his stars into retirement. But the final vote, 54 to 43, came much closer than anyone anticipated.

Admiral Kelso served the Navy with distinction. But his record is blemished by the Tailhook scandal, which occurred on his watch.

Especially in the military, where the stakes are life and death, leadership depends on accountability. The senators thought it was only fair that the admiral pay a price for Tailhook and for the half-hearted, ineffective investigation that followed.

The Tailhook scandal is a sordid story of gantlets, taunts and other ribald revelry conducted at the expense of women officers and others invited to a 1991 Las Vegas gathering of Navy and Marine aviators. Admiral Kelso was present for part of the weekend but denies any knowledge of what went on. If that is true, it's only fair to ask what else he didn't know about his Navy.

But Tailhook was more than just a weekend of boys-will-be-boys behavior. The aftermath was worse.

It can be summarized in the effect on one woman's career. Lt. Paula Coughlin, a young admiral's aide at the time of the gathering, later came forward with her story. She knew, of course, that blowing the whistle on such behavior could end up hurting her more than any of the men implicated in the scandal.

That's exactly what happened. There were some early resignations, including then-Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III, who attended the last night of the infamous convention.

But three years later, no male officer involved in the affair has been disciplined in any way commensurate with the dereliction of duty. Yet Lieutenant Coughlin resigned her commission in February, saying that the scandal ''and the covert attacks on me that followed have stripped me of my ability to serve.''

Admiral Kelso has taken some tough criticism, but no real lumps. Defense Secretary William Perry faulted him for a ''failure of leadership,'' adding that he ''did not exercise due diligence'' and that the Tailhook investigation ''was flawed and badly flawed.''

Then he praised the admiral's 38-year career and recommended that he get all four stars -- not surprising, perhaps, for an administration that must tread warily with the military because of the commander-in-chief's own history.

Meanwhile, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, President Clinton's choice to succeed Admiral Kelso, told the same Senate committee that the Navy's tarnished image, resulting from such problems as the Tailhook scandal and academic cheating at the Naval Academy, ''were actions of individuals,'' not evidence of deeper trouble.

Maybe he should ask around. He could start with the women who are serving their country in uniform and who run up against old-boy attitudes every day.

Their reaction to the Tailhook cover-up is simple: ''What else did you expect?'' Ask a woman officer in virtually any service and the answer comes back: The Tailhook aftermath was the old boys network protecting itself.

What does this cost the country? In terms of military readiness, perhaps the price is manageable. Women are, after all, a minority in every branch of service. But there is a cost, and it is not insignificant. Any organization depends on talent, and by writing off the contributions of women -- which they do when they tolerate sexual harassment and hostile attitudes -- the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines severely restrict their talent pool and thus their ability to excel.

The question of women in combat will always be controversial. But combat-status or not, plenty of women in the military risk their lives for their country. And plenty of them bring desperately needed abilities to the armed services. Diminishing their contribution is not just bad politics, it's a sign of out-to-lunch leadership.

Admiral Boorda's ''Who, me?'' attitude is not what Americans expect from their military leaders. Don't real commanders take charge -- and also take responsibility?

As Sen. Patty Murray lamented during the debate last week, ''So much authority, so little leadership.''

Her reference was to the narrow-cast vision of much of the military's male brass. But it is true in civilian life as well. Leadership, not just authority, is what keeps nations strong.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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