Assistant Army Secretary Sara E. Lister, a Washington lawyer who successfully pressed the military to open more jobs to women, abruptly resigned Friday, attempting to quell a furor she created by branding the Marines “extremists.”
Lister, the service’s top personnel officer and a confidante of Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., quit her Pentagon position a week ahead of schedule after her apologies failed to quell the firestorm of demands for her ouster.
White House and Pentagon aides said Lister decided on her own to resign.
In an interview Friday, Lister said her quotes had been misconstrued. “My main point was that the Marines were different,” she said. “I used the wrong word and apologized.”
Congressional Republicans said her remarks were the Clinton administration’s latest affront to the military and they demanded she be drummed out of office for besmirching the reputation of the small but proud service.
At an Oct. 26 seminar sponsored by Harvard University’s John T. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies in Baltimore, Lister described Marines as “extremists.”
“I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are,” she said in a rambling speech. “The Marines are extremists. Wherever you have extremists, you’ve got the risk of total disconnection from society, and that’s a little dangerous.”
When asked about the various services’ television ads, Lister replied: “The Marine Corps is - you know, they have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff. But the Army is sort of muddy boots on the ground.”
Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, R-N.Y., a former Marine who led the House effort to condemn Lister Thursday, expressed relief. She “did the only thing she could do,” he said. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said her resignation “sends a clear signal to every administration appointee that the military, which defends our lives and our freedom, must never be slandered, abused, or taken for granted.”
Lister’s defenders suggested that her critics may have fanned the controversy to keep her from succeeding West, who is expected to be nominated by President Clinton as secretary of Veterans Affairs.
“This wasn’t about what she said, but what she and the Clinton administration have been doing to open the military to more women,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, a group that backs the effort to open more military jobs to women.
Retired Brig. Gen. Evelyn “Pat” Foote, who was recalled to active duty to co-chair a panel looking into sexual harassment in the Army, offered high praise for Lister, saying, “I think she is one of the greatest soldiers the Army has ever had.”
However, Kate O’Beirne, Washington editor of the National Review magazine, said she had questioned Lister’s comment about Marines during the Baltimore meeting and gave her an opportunity to retract it. “She didn’t,” O’Beirne said.
Lister’s comments did not become news, however, until O’Beirne relayed them to Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness, a Michigan-based group that has been highly critical of the Clinton administration’s drive to open more military jobs to women. Donnelly said she featured Lister’s comments in her organization’s newsletter and faxed a copy to The Washington Times, which broke the story Thursday.
Donnelly accused Lister of “terrorizing people in uniform for years.”
Lister, who had clashed with many of the Army’s top generals over sexual harassment and women’s roles in the military, had announced Sept. 26 that she would resign by the end of November. Friends say she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Charles E. Lister, who lives in London. They have two grown daughters.