WASHINGTON -- Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, who led the sea service during more than five years of tumult and change marked by the aftershocks of the Tailhook scandal, widespread cheating at the Naval Academy and greater integration of women into the fleet, announced yesterday that he is resigning at the end of the year.
"I am a man who is richly blessed," said Dalton, a 1964 Naval Academy graduate and former submariner. Telling reporters that his was "the best job in government," Dalton took credit for enhancing the Navy's reputation and putting the service on course for the post-Cold War world.
Dalton, 56, who stayed on longer than President Clinton's other original service secretaries, said he will leave in December for work in the private sector, although he has no specific job.
The Navy secretary denied news reports that he was being eased out. And Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said, "We have a very good relationship."
But in March, Cohen's spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, confirmed that aides had spoken with a retiring Democratic congressman, Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, about his interest in the Navy's top civilian job.
"We have a secretary of the Navy and somebody who would make a good secretary of the Navy," Bacon said at the time, adding that service secretaries rarely serve two full presidential terms.
McHale, a Marine Reserve officer, has since taken his name out of consideration. He declined to say yesterday whether he would reconsider. "With courage and dedication, Secretary Dalton has navigated some very tough seas," McHale said in a statement. "Our entire nation owes him a debt of gratitude."
The president issued a statement accepting the resignation and praising Dalton.
"His business acumen has helped to streamline and strengthen operations, and he has worked ceaselessly to extend opportunity to every sailor and Marine, helping draw strength from our rich diversity," Clinton said.
Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said "the Clinton administration has lost a true asset."
Pentagon sources said Dalton was offered several other federal posts, including one working with the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. "There were discussions about anything else in government, and I said no," Dalton said in an interview, declining to elaborate.
An affable former banker with a soft Southern drawl, Dalton is a devout Episcopalian who says grace at every meal and served as a Clinton fund-raiser in Texas.
Vicar of the Navy
As the 70th naval secretary -- now a largely administrative and ceremonial post that lost power to the office of defense secretary -- Dalton became something of a vicar of the Navy, preaching, from aircraft carrier to Marine training base and community hall, a gospel of ethical behavior and respectful gender relations.
In 1993, when Dalton took over the Navy, he was immediately presented with a problem: More than 100 files of officers who were present for the drunken debauchery of the Tailhook Association conference two years earlier. Dalton agonized over the decisions to end some careers and save others.
Gender integration and responsibility became Dalton's watchwords. But some retired senior officers, lawmakers and some Pentagon officials viewed him as a political animal who often bungled personnel decisions and buckled to feminists and lawmakers.
He is still excoriated by aviators for the case of Cmdr. Robert Stumpf, a Persian Gulf war veteran. Stumpf's promotion to captain was derailed by allegations that he attended a Tailhook party where a stripper performed and that he flew an F-18 fighter to the aviators' conference without authorization.
Stumpf's lawyer, Charles W. Gittins, concluded that Dalton wanted to push Stumpf out because of pressure from Capitol Hill, and Stumpf resigned. Dalton said he simply wanted to have a sworn statement he could take to the Senate, adding that he "wasn't 100 percent sure if [Stumpf] should be promoted."
"I think because of his action on Tailhook, he never gained the respect of the active-duty community," said one Navy source.
Others point to Dalton's failure to stand up for Adm. Stanley Arthur, a popular combat veteran who was selected to lead U.S. forces in the Pacific -- until he was accused by a senator of mishandling a sexual harassment case.
Dalton said he tried during his tenure to restore the Navy values of honor, courage and commitment preached since the days of John Paul Jones. "In our past, we've done things which might then have been considered acceptable but are no longer considered acceptable," Dalton told a National Press Club audience two years ago.