WASHINGTON -- The candidacy of an Air Force general to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seemed increasingly imperiled yesterday as a growing number of senators said the officer's adulterous affair in the mid-1980s should disqualify him.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen met yesterday morning with a dozen senators from the Armed Services Committee, which would vote on the nomination, to explain his decision to consider Gen. Joseph Ralston for the promotion despite his affair with a civilian employee of the CIA.
But a day after many senators offered support to Cohen, their former Republican colleague from Maine, lawmakers spoke in sharper tones yesterday about the candidacy of Ralston, a combat pilot who, after 32 years in the service, is the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When asked on the NBC News program "Today" how she would vote if Ralston were nominated, Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said, "I would say I have serious concerns."
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle said an important unanswered question was whether the military's rule on adultery was being enforced uniformly. "If it isn't, then I think the Pentagon needs to re-evaluate whether or not this nomination ought to go forward," Daschle said.
Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said, "This potential nominee will face a bumpy ride."
The White House continued to keep its distance from the decision, leaving Cohen and his aides to sort out the final judgment on the nomination of Ralston, 53.
"I think he's an enormously competent man," a senior administration official said. "Are you asking me whether he can be confirmed? That's a different question. I would hope so. Again I don't know all of the facts. Nor does the president."
Senior Pentagon officials acknowledged their uphill battle in convincing the White House and Congress that Ralston was a politically survivable choice to lead the nation's 1.4 million-member armed forces. Speaking of the possible nomination, one official said: "I'm not sure the president would be all that comfortable. This is not a headache he would particularly relish."
Cohen has talked by phone to Ralston, who has been traveling in Central Asia, but wants to meet personally with the general as soon as he returns Monday before deciding on his nomination.
At yesterday's closed meeting on Capitol Hill, the senators were polite but noncommittal.
"They were supportive of the secretary, but there was a kind of wait-and-see attitude," a participant said. "There was a feeling to see how the public reacts and if there is anything else out there against Ralston."
Pentagon aides said they had received at least two allegations of other affairs Ralston might have been involved in, but the aides said those reports were "inconsistent" with the information the general had given to Cohen.
Senators were also troubled by the juxtaposition of the treatment of Ralston and the military's handling of the adultery cases of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn of the Air Force, a B-52 pilot who had to accept a general discharge, and Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, who was forced to retire early.
Cohen said he had expected to be criticized initially for his decision. But aides said he had hoped to weather the early flak, gauge public opinion and rally support for Ralston.
Ralston has been Cohen's favorite for the job for some time, aides say, and he is reluctant to part with him now, even though the general failed to tell him about the affair before reporters brought it to the secretary's attention.
One problem for Cohen if Ralston's candidacy fails is that there are few obvious alternatives.
"There's slim pickings out there," said a top aide to Cohen.
Gen. John J. Sheehan of the Marines, who heads the U.S. Atlantic Command, had been another front-runner but is apparently no longer a candidate.
Pub Date: 6/07/97