WASHINGTON -- Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston withdrew from consideration as the nation's top military officer yesterday, having concluded that he could not win Senate confirmation because of an adulterous affair he had 13 years ago while separated from his wife.
Ralston's decision followed a tumultuous week in which he became a flash point for a debate on adultery in the military and whether a double standard excuses the highest-ranking male officers while punishing female or lower-ranking officers.
In a brief statement, Ralston denied that there was any "double standard" that treated him more leniently than other officers who have been prosecuted or forced to resign for marital infidelity.
After meeting with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen yesterday, the general visited Capitol Hill, seeking to gauge his standing with key senators. He apparently found little support.
"This is solely my decision, and I make it with a sense of regret," Ralston, 53, a decorated Vietnam War combat pilot, said in his statement.
The defense secretary said that Ralston, widely seen as Cohen's own top choice to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believed that a prolonged fight for Senate confirmation would be "harmful to his family" and "a distraction" from pressing defense issues. Cohen said that Ralston would remain in his current post as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In a statement, President Clinton called Ralston an "outstanding officer" and said he was pleased that the general would stay on in the No. 2 job.
In coming weeks, Cohen said, he hopes to name a replacement for Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is scheduled to retire in September. At this point, there is no clear front-runner.
Those under consideration include three Army generals: Gen. Wesley Clark, an Arkansas native and Rhodes scholar; Gen. George A. Joulwan, who has announced his retirement as allied commander in Europe; and Gen. John H. Tilelli Jr., a Vietnam and Persian Gulf war veteran who commands U.S. forces in South Korea.
Two Marines are also candidates: Gen. John J. Sheehan, commander in chief of the Atlantic command, and Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine commandant. No Marine has ever been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the top military adviser to the president.
Another officer under consideration is Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, who rose to his post as commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe from the enlisted ranks and would be the first Hispanic in the job.
Ralston's selection became imperiled last week, after reports that he had had an affair with a civilian CIA agent while he was separated from his wife and was a student at the National War College. He later divorced his wife.
Ralston, who returned over the weekend from a trip to Central Asia, acknowledged the affair to Cohen. The defense secretary insisted that the matter should not disqualify Ralston, and he sought to draw a distinction between Ralston's case and other cases of sexual indiscretion that have recently ended military careers. Cohen said it was time to draw "a line" and consider Ralston's 32 years of distinguished service.
Cohen's public support for Ralston set off a torrent of criticism from members of Congress, political commentators and editorialists, who pointed to the adultery cases of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 pilot, and Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser, commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Flinn was discharged last month, and Longhouser was forced into retirement.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said last week that the public would ask: "Why is it OK for [Ralston] and not others of a lesser rank?"
Yesterday, Mikulski said she respected Ralston's decision, noting his "distinguished career." But she said the Pentagon had bungled the recent cases:
"This is an unfortunate event that didn't have to happen if the Pentagon had more effectively handled previous cases of sexual misconduct. His potential nomination was not well thought out in the context of Aberdeen, Maj. Gen. Longhouser and Lt. Kelly Flinn."
Defense officials have taken pains to say that all the adultery cases are different. Ralston's infidelity, they argued, did not undercut "good order and discipline" -- one of the triggers for prosecution -- because he was a student at the time and not in command, and the woman involved was a civilian.
Flinn had been cautioned last year to end her affair, which involved the husband of an enlisted woman and therefore, according to Pentagon officials, undermined good order and discipline at her base. Flinn was also charged with lying and disobeying orders.