Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr., seeking to quell a storm of controversy, made public the names for 69 waivers granted for burial at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday as the Clinton administration assailed charges of political favoritism.
“We concluded that the best antiseptic was sunlight,” West told reporters as he offered, with apologies to family members, details on why he had overruled the recommendations of his staff in granting nine of the exceptions.
The Democratic National Committee, after reviewing the list, announced that only one individual, San Diego businessman and former ambassador to Switzerland Larry Lawrence, had been a major political contributor.
At the White House, presidential press secretary Michael McCurry unleashed a scorching indictment of news organizations for spreading “grave sites for sale” allegations that were first printed last summer in the Army Times and circulated broadly by the conservative Insight magazine, a sister publication of the Washington Times.
“It was a calculated, partisan, political effort to destroy the reputations of people now in government and in the process of doing so, besmirching the honor of people who are buried at Arlington National Cemetery,” McCurry said. “And it’s an outrage that that kind of behavior has accomplices in an otherwise free press.”
At the Pentagon briefing, West staunchly defended his decisions to allow the exceptions for space in the cemetery normally reserved for highly decorated veterans.
Arlington has long made exceptions for ambassadors who die in office, he said in referring to the case of Lawrence, which he said had been approved by his staff. Lawrence had served in World War II in the Merchant Marine and was injured when his ship was hit by a torpedo.
“He deserves to be there,” West said.
Appearing steady as a rock for most of his briefing, the Army secretary struggled with emotion as he recounted the case of Maj. Clarence T. Marsh, an Air National Guardsman, who was flying over White Sands Missile Range when his plane began crashing to the ground.
“He stayed with it to avoid a cluster of people” and was unable to bail out, West said, halting to recover his composure.
The Army secretary won praise from the White House, where he has been touted as the next secretary for Veterans’ Affairs.
“He handled himself completely honorably, and I think that’s manifestly clear now,” McCurry said.
Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee charged, “Right wing partisans have misled an uncritical press into carrying their hateful and unpatriotic attack.”
“Newt Gingrich, his henchmen in the Republican Congress and hate mongers from Rush Limbaugh to G. Gordon Liddy to the RNC (Republican National Committee) owe an apology to the families of all the distinguished Americans who earned their places of honor at a national cemetery,” Romer said.
Democrats were particularly angry at Gingrich, who called Thursday for the administration to turn over the names of those who were granted waivers.
“Republicans have had access to these names and to public FEC (Federal Election Committee contribution) data for months,” said DNC spokesman Steve Langdon. “They chose to ignore that and peddle these lies for cynical partisan gain anyway.”
Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., who chairs a subcommittee that is investigating the cemetery issue, confirmed that his panel has had the list of names since last June. However, he said that his investigators “received the actual case summaries from the Army only yesterday.”
Everett called for a study of all exceptions granted since the Reagan administration and a review of the criteria for burial at Arlington.
West said that limits were set for the cemetery after President John Kennedy was buried there, an event that brought a flood of applicants for the cemetery.
Acknowledging that the Clinton administration has granted many more waivers than previous administrations, West traced the increase to the increasing numbers of deaths in the World War II generation.
Among the exceptions granted, the majority were for widows and family members. Others include: Warren D. Parks, a World War II veteran, who was a descendant of slaves who had served Arlington House, the original plantation house still at the site of the cemetery.
Joseph L. Merton, a U.S. Army aircorpsman who flew with the Tuskegee Airmen.
Cmdr. Nancy E. Dyer, a Naval Reserve officer, who was killed in an auto accident en route to her active duty training job.
Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Albert B. Sabin, an Army veteran who developed the oral polio vaccine.
Joseph J. Kuzel, Jr., a former Army captain who was killed while on a peace mission in Bosnia in 1995 as an assistant secretary of defense.
Another exception was journalist John Scali, who was a non-veteran but served as a war correspondent in World War II and later, working for ABC, became a crucial go-between for President Kennedy in sending messages to the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.