On the night of October 4, 1993, the Kennedy Center in Washington was packed with Navy brass and their exquisitely gowned wives for a concert honoring the sea service's 218th birthday.1 Seated in the box of honor were the new secretary of the Navy, John H. Dalton, and the chief of naval operations, Admiral Frank Kelso. Although all seemed serene in the box, undercurrents of electricity wafted through the air. Only days earlier, Dalton had recommended that Kelso be fired for his alleged failure to halt excesses at the 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas.
Kelso, a submariner by trade, was to complete his four-year tour in July after more than thirty years of exemplary service.
Dalton, a Clinton appointee, was known throughout the Navy as the "Quota-meister" after his plan to commission new officers "in a percentage approximately equal to the racial makeup of the American populace" became known. "That translates to about twelve percent African-Americans, twelve percent Hispanics, and five percent Asian Americans," Dalton had pointed out.
A graduate of the Naval Academy in 1964, Dalton resigned from active duty after five years and went into private business. Like his friend Bill Clinton, he had been a finalist in the Rhodes Scholar competition.
Dalton's plan to scuttle sixty-year-old Frank Kelso was botched from the beginning. The Navy secretary had made his decision known privately after reviewing the cases of thirty-four admirals and one Marine Corps general who had attended the 1991 Tailhook convention. But someone in the Pentagon leaked the proposed move to the media over the weekend before the affair at the Kennedy Center. So Admiral Kelso learned of his fate in the press.
Service secretaries are generally seen but not heard in the Pentagon's major policy debates. Each serves as a budget custodian, promoter, and master of ceremonies for his respective military branch. Firing a member of the Joint Chiefs is the prerogative of the secretary of defense and the President, not the service secretary. Two years earlier, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney decided that Admiral Kelso should not be dropped over the side as a Tailhook casualty.