WASHINGTON -- Overruled in his first major decision as the Navy's new top civilian, John Dalton is fighting to save his credibility as well as a working relationship with his top military officer at a time when the Navy remains dogged by a 2-year-old sexual harassment scandal.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin's reversal last week of Mr. Dalton's call to remove the Navy's top officer, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, for failing to show leadership at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, was more than simply an embarrassment. It raised serious questions about whether the Navy secretary can still work effectively with Admiral Kelso, the chief of naval operations.
A unified Navy leadership will be critical as the service begins a series of trials this month stemming from the assault on scores of women by aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention, and as top officials face decisions about closing more bases in 1995 and reducing the number of ships.
In separate interviews this week, both Mr. Dalton and Admiral Kelso said they had patched up any differences. "I look to the future, not the past, and I'm confident we can continue to work together," Admiral Kelso said by telephone.
And Mr. Dalton, who lavishly praised Admiral Kelso, went on to say: "I realize I don't look like a champion today. But I believe out of adversity can come opportunity."
But other Navy officials expressed skepticism that such a tumultuous episode, made worse when Admiral Kelso learned of Mr. Dalton's decision from a TV news report, could pass without any hard feelings.
"There has to be an enormous strain between them," one Navy captain said. "I'd guess a lot of senior Navy people would think, 'Our guy went to the mat and won.' I think Dalton is damaged."
Military experts said it was premature to count Mr. Dalton out. He took office in late July and immediately immersed himself in reviewing the files of 35 Navy admirals and Marine generals who had attended the Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, Nev.
Aiming to revive flagging morale, Mr. Dalton has met with sailors and Marines at several Navy bases on the East and West coasts in recent weeks to listen to their complaints.
Many of them have questions about their future, given the sharp reductions in the armed services. But that goodwill could dissolve if the relationship between Admiral Kelso and Mr. Dalton is strained.
Any prolonged disagreement between the Navy's top officer and its top civilian over major policy issues could bring about in-fighting between the branch's military and political leadership and lead to further deterioration of morale.
Sean O'Keefe, who was the Navy secretary at the end of the Bush administration, said of the Navy's future under Mr. Dalton, "It all depends on what he does from here."
Interviews with senior officers outside Washington indicated as much.
"The decision has been made, it's behind us and we're moving ahead to all work together," said Adm. Paul David Miller, who commands U.S. forces in the Atlantic and is based in Norfolk, Va.
An admiral based on the West Coast said: "They're both our guys and they both represent the Navy. I don't think this hurts Dalton's credibility."
Navy secretaries and chiefs of operations have clashed before. Navy Secretary John Lehman and Adm. James Watkins disagreed on several issues in the early 1980s, including the assignments of senior officers and the types of ships the Navy should build, said Norman Polmar, a Navy historian.
But Navy officials say the current dispute hinges not on policy or personality but rather a judgment call. Colleagues of both men say they had come to like each other since meeting two months ago. Their Pentagon offices are connected by a short hallway, and they typically meet several times a day.
Mr. Dalton, a Naval Academy graduate and affable 51-year-old investment banker from Texas, has apologized to Admiral Kelso for the way in which the admiral heard about the Navy secretary's recommendation.
But Mr. Dalton still thinks he made the right call.
"I made a judgment that I thought was a very tough, agonizing decision," Mr. Dalton said. "But I respect the decision Secretary Aspin made."
Admiral Kelso, a courtly 37-year naval veteran who is scheduled to retire in July, was clearly upset at the handling of the matter but says he does not hold a grudge.
"The nature of our business is that sometimes you go one way and your boss goes another," he said. "You accept that and go on."