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The commander in chief can't command

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The last time we looked, President Clinton was still the commander in chief. But the president has played no role in the controversy over adultery in the military except to issue a statement praising Gen. Joseph W. Ralston after he walked the plank.

It may have been unrealistic to expect any president to interject himself into the situation, even though he is the one who will nominate the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he is the one with the ultimate responsibility for any unfairness in the treatment of General Ralston or the commanding officer of the Aberdeen Proving Ground or Lt. Kelly Flinn.

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Certainly no one would expect Mr. Clinton to stick his neck out by nominating General Ralston and going to the wall for his confirmation by the Senate. That kind of thing may happen in the movies, but not in this administration.

No one in this town has forgotten what happened to Lani Guinier, a "close friend" of the Clintons and his choice to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Her scholarly articles about how minorities might be given greater political power raised the hackles of conservatives, so the Clintons threw her over the side rather than go through the Senate confirmation process.

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Nor has anyone forgotten how Dr. Henry Foster, the Nashville educator, was dropped as the nominee for surgeon general because he had performed or overseen abortions during his long career in medicine. In fact, that vacancy remains unfilled.

When it comes to adultery in the armed forces, however, President Clinton is peculiarly hamstrung by his own history. His relationship with the military has always been tainted by his history of evading the draft during the Vietnam War and by a letter in which the youthful Clinton admitted a "loathing" of the military. This president could not easily intercede at the Pentagon in behalf of either General Ralston or Lieutenant Flinn.

Mr. Clinton has never admitted specifically to committing adultery, but he did concede during the 1992 campaign that there had been "problems" in his marriage. That was taken as such an admission even if it didn't apply in particular to Gennifer Flowers.

Unfortunate timing

The president's position on such issues has been further undermined by some unfortunate timing. Just as the Pentagon tries to deal with sexual-harassment issues, the commander in chief is defending himself against the lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. It is not a favorable context.

Thus Mr. Clinton is not in a political position to take the leadership role we might expect of a president in bringing some sanity to the way the Defense Department deals with these complex issues. The "hot line" system set up by the Pentagon has made all military personnel vulnerable to anonymous and poisonous accusations of misconduct in their private lives.

If we follow the Ralston precedent to its logical end, anyone who has been guilty of adultery, even 15 years ago while separated from a spouse, may not be able to win a promotion to any high-profile position. It is a preposterous standard, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen sensibly tried to "draw a line" that would provide some "rule of reason" to these cases.

The president praised Mr. Cohen for his plans to review and redefine military standards in such matters. "It is essential," he said, "that our system is reasonable, consistent and fair for those who serve our country and that it is perceived to be so by the American people."

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Good sense might have counseled transferring, rather than cashiering, the commanding officer at Aberdeen. Lieutenant Flinn might have been dealt with by some procedure short of a court-martial. And Secretary Cohen and the White House could have gone ahead with the Ralston nomination and forced it through the Senate -- with all the trouble that might have caused for both Ralston and the president.

Instead, General Ralston has become the victim of a mindless policy that our president is peculiarly incapable of correcting.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/11/97



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