Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston on Monday took one look at the political gantlet he would have to run because of his adulterous affair and quickly withdrew as a candidate for the nation’s top military post.
Ralston dropped out of the running for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after a brief visit to the Senate made it clear he would be pilloried for his affair with a CIA employee more than a decade ago.
“This is solely my decision, and I make it with a sense of regret,” said Ralston, 53, a decorated fighter pilot in Vietnam who will remain a top military administrator in his current post as Joint Chiefs vice chairman.
“My regret is that the public discussion surrounding my potential nomination blurred the facts in a number of recent cases and gave the appearance of a double standard regarding military justice,” he said.
Ralston, who flew more than 100 combat missions over Vietnam and Laos, withdrew his name after a series of meetings on Capitol Hill with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would vote on the nomination.
Pentagon and congressional officials said the meetings had been discouraging, with the lawmakers warning Ralston he and his family would be subjected to a grueling confirmation fight that would dwell on details of his private life.
Last week, Ralston confirmed rumors he had an affair 13 years ago with a civilian intelligence analyst from the CIA while the two were students at the National War College and while the general and his wife were separated.
Ralston’s chances were derailed by the controversy over Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn, who took a general discharge last month rather than face a court-martial for lying about her adultery, and Army Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, who was forced to retire last week because of an affair five years ago.
But Ralston’s supporters had argued that there were sharp distinctions between Ralston case and that of Flinn, because the general was not accused of lying to commanders or disobeying an order, which under military law are far more serious offenses than adultery.
Ralston’s retreat took the pressure off embattled Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was slammed by women’s groups and members of Congress last week when he said Ralson’s adultery would not be a bar to his possible promotion.
In a statement, Cohen said Ralston believed “that a prolonged fight for Senate confirmation would be harmful to his family.”
At a news conference at the Pentagon, a senior official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said several strong candidates were in the running to lead the Joint Chiefs but that it would be “several weeks” before a nominee was proposed.
The Pentagon official acknowledged that as a result of the furor over Ralston, all potential nominees could expect to be asked about their private lives.
Defense Department officials had suggested in recent days that the current chairman, Gen. John Shalikashvili, might be persuaded to put off his scheduled retirement, in September, and accept another two-year term in the post.
But Shalikashvili insisted through spokesmen on Monday that he would retire on schedule.
Shalikashvili said Ralston’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration as his successor “makes this a very sad day for me.”
He called Ralston, who had been his pick for the job, a distinguished “warrior, leader and a consummate professional” as well as his “most trusted adviser and a most valued friend.”