FRONTLINE Interview with Senator John McCain (R.-Arizona) FRONTLINE Interview with Senator John McCain (R.-Arizona)

The son and grandson of admirals and a decorated naval aviator who spent six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, McCain was one of the first to condemn what happened at Tailhook '91. He wrote to top naval officials demanding a full investigation. However, McCain believes the Tailhook episode never should have spanned five years of investigations, hearings, and ruined careers. He hopes the tragic death of Admiral Boorda in May 1996 may finally bring closure to the Navy scandal.

Q: Tell me about how you heard about Tailhook, what your reaction was on that.

MCCAIN: I was told by the Navy liaison officer to the Senate that a Lt. Paula Coughlin had wanted to see me. And it was a matter of great urgency to her. And so she came into my office. We talked for a couple of hours. She described to me what had happened to her at the Tailhook convention. I was terribly upset when she told me about what had happened, and I went directly from my office to the floor of the Senate and gave a very strong statement condemning such actions, demanding that there be a full investigation, and the Navy had to do whatever was necessary to prevent a replication ever of such activities. That was the first kind of public statement that was made about what had happened to Lt. Coughlin at Tailhook.

Q: How angry were you, Senator?

MCCAIN: Well, it was a combination of anger and disappointment. I come from a long line of Navy people, and I love and respect the Navy, and I was deeply saddened as well as angered that this should happen.

Q: How bad was it, really?

MCCAIN: I believe that of thousands of people who were there, there were some hundred or so of them, from what I understand, who were guilty of activities which are not acceptable. I regret that others who were not engaged in these activities also were tarred by the brush. But at the same time, the behavior of this significant number, although maybe not significant percentage, but significant number, was not acceptable.

Q: You are such a player in this--your life, your family history as a flyer, as a navigator..... I talked to everybody else involved, and they said when you spoke out, it was important. Did you know that?

MCCAIN: No. But I would like to mention a couple of aspects of this. Society has changed. And people who are in the Navy are in our society and from our society. We cannot have a separate group of people that are military and a separate civilian society. Otherwise, it's dangerous to democracy. And we have to understand that as some things have changed in our society, that we must maintain the same standards that we have expected of men and women in the military, because the unique responsibilities that we place on them haven't changed. But that does mean, in incidents like Tailhook, the Naval Academy, other situations, that we have to do a better job of making sure that one, the men and women in the Navy know those standards, and we expect them to adhere to them, and if they don't, then obviously then they can't be part of the organization. I would suggest to you, the challenge is greater today than it was when I came into the Navy many years ago. But that doesn't change the responsibilities, nor does it lower the standards to which we expect people to adhere to.

Q: Why did it happen?

MCCAIN: Well, I think a combination of factors. I could probably give you 10 or 20 excuses. There's no excuse. The Persian Gulf War was over. These are a bunch of very happy, cocky, young fighter pilots. This kind of activity, I understand, at a much lower level, had been going on in earlier years. No one's told me that this level of activity went on, but this kind of activity had taken place before. I believe that there was a permissive attitude on the part of some of the flag officers who were there at the Tailhook. The junior officer encounter sort of thing they had earlier, where people were drinking beer and questioning, questions at senior officers.

Q: You're talking about the flight officers?

MCCAIN: Yes. I could give you lots of excuses, but there's no excuse. There's no excuse. Although some circumstances, obviously, lent itself to this kind of activity.

Q: The aftermath of Tailhook........ Careers of good, strong men have been ruined by this moment. Did we go too far?

MCCAIN: We went too far, particularly in the case of Commander Stumpf and others. But I would suggest again that one of the reasons why we went too far later on is because the initial investigation was terribly mishandled. It was bungled to an alarming degree. It just was a disaster. So therefore, after the first investigation proved to be unsatisfactory, and additional evidence came to light, then I think there was an over-reaction in the other direction.

Q: Why was the first investigation so bad? The Navy investigating itself.

MCCAIN: I've never known why that investigation was so badly mishandled. But it also was a manifestation, at least partially, of the old circle the wagons syndrome. If we sort of block, then it's going to go away. And the one thing I've learned in this town is that when something like this happens, the only course of action is, get all the information out as quickly as possible and as completely as possible. Otherwise, you're going to have it dragged out. I could argue that this scandal could have been over in a year to two years, if a thorough and complete investigation had been carried out initially. Instead, because of a whole variety of reasons, mainly the mishandling of this entire investigation,that's now dragged on for five and going into six years.

Q: Should Admiral Kelso have been burned down in this process?

MCCAIN: Personally, I liked Admiral Kelso very much. I believe that he served his country with distinction. But I also believe that one of the problems today in America, in our government, not just in the military, is that people in charge say, "I'm responsible," and then bear no responsibility. So I think it was probably appropriate for Admiral Kelso to leave the Navy. But I would suggest that we should remember that he served his nation with distinction for a long period of time. But he did bear responsibility.

Q: Admiral Snyder and Dunleavy?

MCCAIN: I didn't get into a lot of them that deeply, because they were kind of done deals. But in the case of Snyder, I think that he probably should have gotten more of a hearing than he did. In the case of Dunleavy, It's my personal judgment (and I don't like to make those judgments, because I've done a great number of things wrong in my life) that probably Admiral Dunleavy should have left.

Q: The Rebecca Hansen case..... Tell me about Stanley Arthur, your impression of that moment.

MCCAIN: I did not know Admiral Arthur well, except through reputation as one of the finest combat pilots that the Navy has ever had the privilege to have serve it. A fine and decent man who was beloved by his subordinates and a natural leader. I believe that in the Rebecca Hansen case, I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but there was activity here by Senate staffers, which was really incredible. And the pressures that were put on, resulted in an unfair treatment of Admiral Arthur, in my personal opinion. That's the only judgment that I can make: that I don't think that Admiral Arthur deserved the treatment that he got.

Q: What do you think happened? What was going on?

MCCAIN: Well, I have to tell you that I was really astounded that this thing kept on and on. I understand the sensitivity of issues regarding women in the military. Our society demands that women be treated equally, and that we not discriminate against them. And we are very sensitive to any allegation that a woman has been treated improperly. And any of those allegations deserve a full ventilation. However, in this particular case, Admiral Arthur was far removed from the adjudications of Hansen's case. I just felt that Admiral Arthur, as a third of fourth level reviewing officer, was unfairly tarred by this brush.

Q: But isn't he a case of your feeling about Kelso? That gee, if you're in charge, you've got to take the hit?

MCCAIN: I do. But he was a reviewing officer. He did not have any overall responsibility for her treatment nor adjudication. Admiral Kelso was the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. And as unfair as it may be, when the Captain of the Missouri is asleep in his cabin when it runs aground, that's just the way the Navy works. Admiral Arthur, in my understanding, was in the reviewing chain of command, not having overall responsibility for the case. At least, that was my understanding of it.

Q: Is this a case of Tailhook gone too far?

MCCAIN: I think it's better for the country now, for us to try to bring closure to the Tailhook issue. I was on a program one night, too long ago, where they mentioned Tailhook, the cheating scandal at the Naval Academy, a couple of other incidents. I would remind the American people, at the same time there was Grenada, Libya, Panama, the Persian Gulf, the latest being sending our carriers over to the Straits of Taiwan. And so we do still have the finest navy in the world. But that doesn't change the fact that we must do everything we can to insure that there's fair and equal treatment to every member of the Navy and the military. And I'm proud of our record, as far as racial integration in the Navy is concerned. And we still have enormous hurdles as far as gender integration is concerned.

Q: Kara Hultgreen. A lot of controversy about this woman. What's your reading--you're a pilot--on that...?

MCCAIN: I believe that judgments of pilot skills, in many ways, are very subjective, in the eye of the observer. We have to rely on the judgment of these people that are the reviewers. Unless I had some evidence that a reviewing officer of her record was skewed because of her gender, then I would have to accept that person's judgment. More than one male has had trouble in pilot training and given the benefit of the doubt, and then later there's been an accident. So I can't second guess the judgment of people who review people's records, unless I have some kind of hard evidence that their judgment was skewed by some outside influence. And I have no evidence in this case.

Q: Tell me about Bob Stumpf. How did you first get involved in the Stumpf case?

MCCAIN: Believe it or not, Commander Stumpf was a student when I was the commanding officer of the Replacement Air Group in Jacksonville, Florida. And he was very outstanding then. His record is very clear, as being one of the most outstanding Naval officers that we have. He's a leader of the Blue Angels. The reason why he was at the Tailhook convention was because he was getting an award for having the best F-18 squadron in the Navy. We all know the details. He was at a party. Two women came in, took off their clothes. One of them supposedly made an advance towards him, and he held up his hands. I'm sure this is very painful for Commander Stumpf and his family to keep revisiting this issue. We also know that the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations strongly supported his nomination to be promoted to Captain.

In the past few months, Commander Stumpf was subjected to an interrogation by the Deputy General Counsel of the United States Navy. He had a lawyer with him. His lawyer was not allowed to speak. He was basically accused of being guilty of various transgressions. In other words, the presumption in this interrogation was of guilt. Commander Stumpf endured four hours of this. Again, I've never heard of someone not have their lawyer be allowed to speak. He decided he had enough. He went home. A friend of his and mine called me and said, "Commander Stumpf is going to just throw in the towel here, or decide to resign." I called him up on the phone. I said, "Bob, I think you ought to fight this thing. And I will fight for you. And I'll do whatever I can to help you." He said, "It's just too big a strain on my family and my marriage." And I said, "Well, will you think about it overnight?" He said, "Yes."

He called me back the next morning and said, "No. I talked it over with my wife. We just can't go through any more of this." And I said, "You know, if you leave the Navy, then basically your opponents will have succeeded." And he said, "I understand that, but I have to put my family first." I can't question anyone's judgment when they put their family first.

And so basically, what I think happened was that after being supported by the Secretary of the Navy, Commander Stumpf was then subjected to what he felt was an unfair presumption that he was guilty. And it was done by the Navy hierarchy, and I believe that the Secretary of the Navy is directly responsible for this.

Q: Why?

MCCAIN: Because the Secretary of the Navy could have said, "Come over here," and said, "I want him promoted. His name's on the list, and we've been through this several times." I have no idea how many times Commander Stumpf has been investigated.

Q: What do you think?

MCCAIN: I think that the Secretary of the Navy should have supported him, and should have come over here and fought for his nomination. The Secretary of the Navy did not do that. When you don't have that kind of support, then you're not going to succeed.

I grieve personally for Commander Stumpf because I think that he was a fine and decent American, and in fact, far more than that. But I also worry a great deal about the impact of something like this on the rest of the Navy. There's great concern, morale problems now amongst a lot of the junior officers and young pilots in the Navy, who looked up at Commander Stumpf as a role model: leader of the Blue Angels, best squadron in the Navy. And I'm worried about the impact on them. Commander Stumpf has made his decision and is now gone from the Navy.

So my concern now is the future of the Navy. And that's these young people. And I'm not exactly sure how we go about restoring their confidence, because there is a balance here. There's civilian oversight, which is the Constitution, which I would never change. But at the same time, there's a kind of a contract that these men and women in the military except to be treated fairly as well. And there is the perception out there now that the Navy has not been treated well. And whether they have or not is one subject of debate. But we've got to restore the morale, which I think is suffering right now in the Navy, for the national security.

Q: There are some who feel you have to be a political realist. ---that Senator Boxer, Patricia Schroeder, and some others have a different agenda than readiness in the Navy and other things. And that these are realities that all of you have to face--any comment?

MCCAIN: The only comment that I would have is that I understand that there are people of differing views. And I understand why Senator Boxer and others who would want to protect the rights of women, whether they're in the military or not. And I understand their agenda. What I think we should probably have done in the case of Commander Stumpf is go to the floor and have an open and honest debate. If Senator Boxer and others were opposed to his nomination, I was prepared to defend his record on the floor of the Senate.

Q: Did Stanley Arthur deserve to lose ... ?

MCCAIN: I don't believe so. I think he's another one of the victims. A lot of the Navy's problems were caused by the Navy itself, in not coming clean and cleaning the slate and getting some of these issues, like the Tailhook, behind us. And it certainly wasn't Admiral Arthur's fault or Commander Stumpf's fault or anyone else. But the Navy as an institution has to understand, when there is a problem, it's got to be resolved as quickly as possible in a totally open fashion to the American people, who are the ultimate judges.

Q: Have we gone too far? That's really the question. That's the question this film will pose.

MCCAIN: I believe that in the case of Commander Stumpf, clearly, it went too far. And I would like us to bring closure. And perhaps the very tragic suicide of Admiral Boorda will help bring closure to this entire issue. I have seen media reports since Admiral Boorda's suicide, where responsible media people have been saying, " Let's give the Navy a chance. Let's let them move forward." I believe that Admiral Boorda would, as tragic as his act was, and uncalled for, that perhaps out of that we can give the Navy a new beginning.

Q: Explain the idea behind certification for me.

MCCAIN: The certification issue was that anyone who was involved in Tailhook would be flagged, and then the committee would want to know what their activities were. As we talked before, there were many that had no culpability involved in Tailhook. This was a bit redundant because the Navy is required anyway to send over any untoward behavior or bad things in anyone's record when they send over a promotion list. Probably in the first year or so, although it may be a bit unnecessary, it was probably all right. But for it to drag out for years after that, is not appropriate.

Q: Think it was a bad idea on balance?

MCCAIN: Look. There was so much national uproar about Tailhook, and so much concern about it, that it probably was the right thing to do for a year or two even though it was redundant. But it should have been done away with after the first couple years.


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