`The Admiral' is ready, willing for tour of duty as subordinate

Larson gladly signs on as Townsend lieutenant

Election 2002

October 27, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Had his Naval Academy buddy won the presidency two years ago, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson would have been a regular in the White House these days, holding the title of national security adviser or perhaps secretary of defense.

But Sen. John McCain lost that Republican primary battle, and Larson finds himself on a very different battlefield - seeking to be Maryland's next lieutenant governor as the running mate of Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"I've had my day, I've had my time, I've been in command, and I've got my legacy that I'm very, very proud of," says the 65-year-old Larson. "While she's leading the whole state, I'll be able to go deeply into these areas that she's assigned me and work hard to make a difference. At this stage, that's enough of a challenge for me."

Townsend promises a broad portfolio for the man known along the campaign trail simply as "The Admiral." He's a natural to oversee issues of security and military veterans, and he would also likely focus on education, technology and business development.

And though Larson initially said he had no interest in ever running for Maryland's top job, he now says he has learned from three months on the campaign trail "never to rule anything out completely."

At first blush, Larson might appear to be a man unsuited to the worlds of Annapolis politics and door-to-door campaigning, juggling the concerns of Eastern Shore lawmakers with visits to the drug-ravaged neighborhoods of East Baltimore.

But his four decades in the military - submarine skipper, White House aide, commander of U.S. military forces on half the planet, two-time superintendent of the Naval Academy - have forced him to learn a few things about politics.

Perhaps not the partisan politics of Democrats and Republicans, but the politics of persuading congressional committees to back defense budgets and prime ministers of foreign countries to support U.S. military bases.

"I've got 20 years of executive experience doing exactly the same things that governors and lieutenant governors do," Larson says. "The overriding consideration that you take very seriously is that the lieutenant governor be qualified to take over as governor. I think I certainly qualify there. I've run organizations larger than most states."

At ease campaigning

The 6-foot-2-inch Larson has shed most vestiges of a stiff military persona and seems at ease on the campaign trail. He's quick to pull on a red union T-shirt when chatting with the Maryland State Teachers Association, plunge into a crowd of unfamiliar faces and trade low-key barbs with his opponent at an African-American fraternity meeting in West Baltimore.

"Even when he was in the Navy, he seemed naturally drawn to this kind of human interaction of campaigning," says his son-in-law, Navy Cmdr. Wes S. Huey, who began dating one of Larson's daughters while he was an academy midshipman and still has trouble calling Larson anything other than "Sir."

Born in South Dakota and raised in Iowa and Nebraska, Larson came to Maryland as a Naval Academy plebe when he was 17. He had never seen an ocean or traveled west of Denver or east of Chicago. Yet his leadership skills quickly emerged, and he was picked as the top-ranking midshipman of his 1958 graduating class.

He served first as a naval aviator, then made the unusual switch to submarines. He was the first naval officer to be selected to the White House fellow program in 1968, and then served as a military aide to President Richard M. Nixon - carrying the briefcase filled with the nuclear-weapon launch codes.

Larson returned to the water, commanding a nuclear submarine on some of the most daring - and still classified - spy missions of the Cold War. Larson says he once calculated that he has spent three years and 10 months of his life underwater, and he earned two of his seven Distinguished Service Medals for his duty aboard the USS Halibut.

In 1979, at age 43, Larson was promoted to admiral, the second-youngest in U.S. history. He served his first tour as superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1983 to 1986 and, after a stint as deputy chief of Naval Operations, became Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. He oversaw the 350,000 U.S. military personnel scattered across the Pacific and managed a $12 billion budget.

Along the way, Larson married Sally Craig, an admiral's daughter, and they have three grown daughters - Sigrid, Erica and Kirsten.

Officers who served with Larson talk about him with near reverence, describing him with words such as integrity and loyalty.

Retired Cmdr. Craig L. Etka credits Larson with keeping him in the service after he won admission to the nation's top oceanography school. The Navy wanted him to attend its lower-ranked program.

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