Moral majority forces out US general

Armed forces deputy renounces candidature for top post over affair after fury at perceived double standards in military

The deputy head of the US armed forces, General Joseph Ralston, yesterday bowed to the inevitable and withdrew his candidacy for the top job in the US military after becoming embroiled in controversy over an adulterous affair he had 13 years ago. Gen Ralston, 53, had been the favourite to succeed his superior, General John Shalikashvili, when he retires in September.

With the public debate about sexual relations in the US military still raging and accusations of double standards - tolerance for the elite and no mercy for the rest - being traded to and fro, the general's continued candidacy was widely acknowledged to be politically untenable.

He appeared, however, to have fended off calls for his early retirement. The Defense Secretary, William Cohen, sub- sequently confirmed that the Four-star Air Force General, who was highly decorated for his service in Vietnam, would continue in his present post for the time being.

Gen Ralston's decision to sacrifice his ambition for the sake of survival represented a spectacular reversal of his fortunes. At the end of last week, the defence secretary, William Cohen, expressed his continued support for Gen Ralston's candidacy, describing him as an outstanding leader whose distinguished service "outweighed" his indiscretion.

Having earlier insisted that officers be required to observe "the highest moral standards", he said that he thought it was now time to "draw the line".

These statements, however, turned out to be a major error by the Defense Secretary, hitherto regarded as an astute judge of the political mood and an adroit operator in relations with Congress. The initial outcry, led by a group of Congresswomen, developed into something of an all-out revolt and the few voices initially raised in Mr Cohen's support rapidly faded.

Members of Congress said that their phones had been ringing almost constantly since Mr Cohen first uttered support for Gen Ralston, with angry constituents accusing him of perpetuating double standards in the military and discontented servicemen and women ringing to "inform" on other generals and high-ranking officers they believed had committed adultery with impunity.

The contrast was frequently drawn with Kelly Flinn, the 26-year-old female B-52 pilot, who was forced to accept a general discharge from the Air Force two weeks ago after admitting an affair with a married civilian and lying about it.

Comparisons were also drawn with the early retirements announced last week of two senior military officers, and continuing investigations into others, for past adulterous affairs.

To many, Gen Ralston's successful career epitomised the application of a double standard in the military that extended forgiveness and promotion to members of a charmed elite, while the lower ranks and women were threatened with demotion and even discharges.

The mood was summed up by Representative Carolyn Maloney, from New York City, who said: "If you are a friend of the Secretary of Defense and you've had an affair, you're in. If you are a successful woman who's had an affair, you're out."

Ms Flinn herself threw further fat on the flames yesterday. In an article for Newsweek magazine, she made many of the points about "double standards" that had earlier been made on her behalf. "Ralston is a general officer, a man, and he has a whole network of friends to help him. I was a lieutenant, a woman, without anyone in my chain of command willing to help me."

On Saturday, in a belated attempt to limit the damage, the Pentagon called a highly unusual weekend press conference to announce that Mr Cohen was setting up two panels, one to examine the "clarity" of existing regulations on adultery in the military, the other - made up of civilians - to consider the issues raised by mixed-sex training.

This, however, could not quell the uproar. Gen Ralston had to cut short his tour of the Central Asian republics. By yesterday, closeted with Gen. Shalikashvili, whom he had hoped to succeed in September, and Mr Cohen, it was no longer his promotion that was in question, but his career.

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