Tailhook's `Cable'

MESSAGE delivered; message received.

That is the signal so far from what looks like a much subdued Tailhook Association meeting this weekend in San Diego, Calif. We hope it holds. The Navy couldn't withstand nor should the nation tolerate a meeting even remotely approaching 1991's bacchanalia.

This year's meeting, the first since '91, is operating under radically different conditions than the infamous gathering in Las Vegas at which 83 women, including Naval officers, were physically assaulted by male Navy and Marine aviators. This year the crowd is smaller (700 versus nearly 7,000 in 1991); the Navy has severed anything that appears to tie it to the gathering; and organizers have banned ``hospitality suites'' and the pornographic films, excessive drinking, and other activities that shocked the nation.

The conditions under which the meeting is taking place suggest that Defense Secretary Les Aspin was correct this week to retain Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Frank Kelso II, despite a recommendation from Navy Secretary John Dalton that Admiral Kelso be fired over the 1991 Tailhook scandal. We respect the conscientiousness with which Mr. Dalton developed his report on the scandal and his integrity in calling it as he saw it. But that call was excessive and too far after the fact to be of any value.

Even before Tailhook, the admiral had done more to expand the roles of women in the service than any of his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If he is to be faulted, it may be less for leadership on this issue and more for the insularity, expectations, and assumptions about behavior bred of his years in the ``silent'' submarine service - whose culture leans more toward the staid engineer than hot-shot jet jockey. Two reports from the Pentagon's inspector general found no basis to doubt Kelso's statements that he had not seen any misconduct while at the 1991 meeting as a speaker.

Clearly he felt accountable; he offered to resign in 1992. President Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney refused to accept the offer. He also has pursued reforms emphasizing the imperative to respect the dignity of women in the military.

For his part, Mr. Aspin had to include political factors in his review of Dalton's conclusions: President Clinton's strained relations with the military; and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn's doubts about the need to fire Kelso.

The Navy is pursuing Tailhook offenders, although with varying degrees of success. Nor would we necessarily rule out a lesser sanction than firing for Kelso. But given his overall record, it is right - even appropriate - that he be given the chance to spend his time until retirement next July continuing to set the situation right.

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