FRONTLINE Interview with David Durenberger FRONTLINE Interview with David Durenberger

He and his Senate staff took up the case of Rebecca Hansen in 1993-1994. They probed whether Hansen's washout from helicopter flight training school was in retaliation for her having earlier charged sexual harrassment by an instructor. To pressure the Navy for information, Durenberg placed a hold on the nomination of Admiral Stanley Arthur, a highly esteemed officer who was being promoted to the Pacific command. Durenberger served 16 years in the Senate, retiring at the end of 1994.

Q: When did you remember hearing about Rebecca Hansen and what was the story?

DURENBERGER: I think it was at the point that my chief of staff, Rick Evans, got involved. Because normally, a case like Rebecca's would be handled as case work. And it's only when I have to be personally involved, or Rick himself got personally involved, that it would come directly to my attention.

I think Rick did not get involved in any of the case work stuff. The case worker was a very good person, and done a very good job, time and time and time again on a wide variety of kinds of cases, not just for Minnesotans but just for people that knew that she and we did a good job of getting to the heart of things. But if she needed me, like to call a parent, announce good news or bad news, whatever the case may be, deal with a difficult subject in a way that it sort of takes a person in my position to deal with it, then she'd come to me. But the chief of staff would not have to get involved, unless there was something going on that just was making resolution impossible.

And that's what happened in this particular case. Rick got involved because for some reason or other, he was having difficulty near the top of the Navy, in just getting to a resolution of the thing. He got frustrated because he couldn't get to the heart of it, and then came to tell me about it.

Q: What did you understand the issue to be?

DURENBERGER: The issue was relatively straightforward. And that is whether or not, in the second phase of Rebecca Hansen's helicopter training...the flight instructor there had allowed a conversation he'd had earlier with her previous instructor about her and about sexual harassment and so forth, to influence his judgment in the ratings that he gave her at Pensacola. That was the heart of the issue.

Q: And at a moment when a constituent comes forward, has gone to the case worker (Ann Crowther in this case), up to Rick Evans, he's slightly frustrated, he comes to you. You get this case presented. What does a United States Senator do? What can you do?

DURENBERGER: It's a sort of a Solomon role. I never adopted the notion that it's my constituent, right or wrong, and the government's always wrong, and all the rest of that sort of thing. We were successful in our constituent service and in our case work, because we were always objective. So it was my practice, to be as objective as I could, thinking that was the best way in which to meet the needs of the constituent and the needs of the government in-- in whatever case, to get-- to do whatever government had to do.

Q: So what did you decide you could do on behalf of Rebecca Hansen?

DURENBERGER: When I came into it in the beginning, the issue was simply: How do you get the Navy at the top to be responsive? Because at that point Rick had gone to a meeting, representing me, at which all of the major players were supposed to be there to get at the heart of it. And he said, "We met and met and met and met, and nobody really dealt with the issue."

And he said, "I think you're just going to have to call the Secretary and just sort of lay out the fact that you need to get to the heart of this, and the Navy needs to do it as quickly as possible, and you need to get it resolved one way or the other," which is what I did. And the flow of events occurred after that.

Q: What was your sense of her, sir?

DURENBERGER: I didn't meet Rebecca until somewhere, near the end of this process. I was dealing with this as I would with any kind of a constituent service matter. I had the facts as provided for me by my case worker. I had the facts as Rick gave them to me, which were more, I would say. In a sense, he's coming to it new, so he gets a fresh look at it. And then I had whatever information I would get from somebody in the Navy.

But I had not met Rebecca Hansen. I had not interviewed her personally. My recollection is that it was way near the end of this process that I first met Rebecca and her mother about the same time.

Q: Would it have been, in retrospect, useful to have met her?

DURENBERGER: No. And the thought would never have occurred to me to do that, because I was more interested in meeting Secretary Dalton, or whoever had the facts. Like when I wanted to see the Inspector General. And then, after talking to him, I wanted to see the report. They let me see the Inspector General, but they wouldn't let me see the report. All I was trying to do is get at the heart of the facts. There wasn't any more I was going to learn from Rebecca Hansen by meeting her. I needed to meet the people in the Navy who had the facts, and evaluate that.

Q: What did you think was up?

DURENBERGER: I had no way of knowing. You know, our timing, in one sense, was not great, from the Navy's standpoint. Because the Navy was struggling with, how do you deal with the aftermath of Tailhook. The Navy clearly was trying to do its bestto not only deal with that, but to change literally a couple hundred years of Naval history, and to some degree, behavior.

So it wasn't a good timing for the Navy. And all the more reason why this was the kind of case in which, I was convinced that the Navy had dealt with it objectively all the way through, the way they did in the first part of it, with the discipline against a first instructor, then quickly it would be my job to see that Rebecca sort of change her course in regard to her career in the Navy.

Q: Did she, as far as you know, investigate Rebecca herself?

DURENBERGER: Well, all I can say with regard to Ann Crowther is the way in which she normally dealt with cases. She has only so much time. I have only so much time. You have a big work load. And so you want to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. You don't take cases to do-- for PR reasons or anything else. You do them to get to the heart of it, find out whether or not there is a cause here, how that can be dealt with, and how it can be resolved.

So I'm sure that she dealt with-- I mean, I can't say this for a fact, but I will presume that Ann Crowther dealt with this case the same way she would deal with every one of literally a thousand cases that she must have handled.

Q: What were your impressions of Stanley Arthur when he came in? He came to your office?

DURENBERGER: Yeah. He came to my office.

Q: Tell me about Stanley Arthur.

DURENBERGER: I liked Stanley Arthur...struck me as being an honest, straightforward man, a great naval officer. I mean, by reputation, he was a tough, good naval officer.

Q: Why do you figure he visited you?

DURENBERGER: Because he had been asked to. I think everybody in this whole process operated under the best of intention. And I've always not only respected but admired the Navy, in the way in which they deal with a lot of these issues. And I've had some tough cases with the Navy, particularly with service men at the non-officer grade level, in the way in which the Navy had treated people.

But when anything got up to the Secretary's level, I always found that the Navy tried to do their best, to make sure that, you know, they would help a Senator, a Congressman or something, get to the heart of a problem. Because I mean, you live with each other for a long, long time. And so it was never a surprise to me that a Stanley Arthur would come to visit, or that an inspector general would come to visit, or any of that sort of thing.

What the Navy kept missing in this case, I think, was the fact that I was going to have to end up, because of all the history in this case, I was going to have to end up being the one to make the decision, not them. They could make the decision, but they'd have to communicate it and the foundation for it to me.


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