Clinton speaks of leaders learning from their mistakes Graduating Mids rejoice

May 26, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

The test of leadership is the ability to learn from one's mistakes, President Clinton yesterday told a U.S. Naval Academy graduating class rocked by the largest cheating scandal in the school's history.

Widespread cheating on an electrical engineering exam at the academy and the Tailhook incident, in which Navy fliers were accused of sexually assaulting women at a 1991 convention, are "troubling events," the president said, because the military "rests on honor and leadership."

But ultimately the test of leadership is not constant flawlessness," he told graduates and thousands of spectators at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "Rather, it is a commitment to always strive for the highest standards, to learn honestly when one falls short and to do the right thing when it happens."

The cheating scandal, in which 134 midshipmen were implicated and 24 were expelled, including the class president, a co-captain of the football team and members of the academy's honor board, has angered many in the Class of 1994 who thought their classmates and leaders let them down.

Others simply wanted to leave it behind.

"It's been a tough year but now we're all ready to move on," said Brian Campbell, 24, a Navy ensign, who soon will be serving aboard ship. "We survived the 'Double E scandal.' "

Ensign Campbell said he had a "lot of good friends" among those expelled. "It's a test of integrity, that's how it works out," he added,as he went to receive his diploma.

Myron Harrington Jr., a retired Marine colonel from Charleston, S.C., said his son and namesake was "frustrated" by how long it took to resolve the scandal. Now the 22-year-old is eager to follow his father and grandfather into the Corps.

A smaller class

The scandal, involving a final exam for Electrical Engineering 311 given in December 1992, made yesterday's graduating class the smallest in at least a decade: 868, including 93 women.

Besides those expelled, 64 midshipmen received a variety of punishments for their roles in the scandal and did not graduate yesterday. They will receive their diplomas and commissions in a series of small ceremonies stretching through the summer. There were no women among those expelled, although a small number received punishment, Navy sources said.

The majority of those who graduated -- 691 -- will go into the Navy as ensigns. There were also 164 commissioned as Marine Corps second lieutenants. Three others will enter the Air Force and two othersthe Army, all as second lieutenants.

The scandal also led to an overhaul in the way honor and integrity are taught at the school and stalled the careers of its top leadership. Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent and a 1964 academy graduate, who admitted "failure" in not pursuing the scandal, has been offered lateral posts, rather than the third star and fleet he had hoped to command.

Academy makes changes

The Navy chose a highly regarded Marine colonel to become the academy's "character development officer" who will devise new courses and involve coaches and faculty in teaching the strict honor concept: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they do not lie, cheat or steal."

The school also will ask applicants to include an evaluation from teachers attesting to their character.

Finally, in an effort to rebuild the academy, top Navy officials selected Adm. Charles R. Larson to be the new superintendent. The four-star admiral, who still must be approved by the Senate, would be the highest ranking officer ever to lead the academy.

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton, whose relations with the military have beenstrained because of his efforts to avoid service during the Vietnam War and his advocacy of gays serving in the military, received polite applause when he stepped into the stadium ringed with the names of battles from World War I to Vietnam.

But there was vigorous clapping when he called for a strong defense that rose to cheers and thunderous applause when he praised the Navy and the academy.

"I came here today because I want America to know there is no finer navy in the world than the United States Navy and no finer training ground for naval leadership than the United States Naval Academy," he said, the final words drowned out by cheers.

The midshipmen soon rose and formed a line that snaked to the podium to receive their degrees. Retired Rear Adm. Virgil Hill, who was superintendent when a female sophomore was

dragged from her dormroom and chained to a urinal by jeering mids, strode along next to the graduates, shaking hands.

"You're dealing with a group for whom the world expects inhuman standards -- but it should," said the admiral, now president of Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pa. "They're a great bunch of kids."

He recalled a quote from the late British prime minister Winston Churchill, "Failure is never fatal." "You can always learn from it," he said.

As the ceremony ended, new officers and their families converged on the field, wrapped in embraces and greetings.

Among them was Duncan N. Ingraham Jr., 23, a football player and scion of a Navy family, who was among those implicated in the scandal and later exonerated.

"It's a big day for me. What's past is past," he said.

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