On October 29, 1991, Senator John McCain went to the floor of the US Senate. The former Navy pilot was angry and disgusted. In recent days, the news had broken that the previous month Navy airmen and others had gone wild—engaging in sexual molestation, out-of-control drinking, and other misconduct—at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, an annual gathering of retired and active-duty naval aviators. “I cannot tell you,” McCain proclaimed, “the distaste and displeasure that I have as a naval aviator…concerning this incident.” He bemoaned the fact that senior ranking naval officers and civilian leaders had been at the meeting. He called for an investigation and urged the Navy to suspend its traditional participation with the Tailhook reunions. “There is no time in the history of this country that something like this is more inappropriate,” McCain said, “and we cannot allow it. It is unconscionable. And we in the military…should be ashamed and embarrassed…that this kind of activity went on. And there is no excuse for it.”
Now, McCain has placed one of the men responsible for permitting—and encouraging– loutish activity at the Tailhook meetings in a powerful position: heading up his transition team.
McCain recently named John Lehman to oversee his transition effort and figure out how a McCain administration ought to get started—and whom it ought to hire for the most senior jobs—should McCain win the November 4 election. Lehman, now an investment banker, was secretary of the Navy during the 1980s, and he played a R-rated role in the Tailhook scandal.
Lehman was no longer Navy secretary when the Tailhook scandal exploded. But in 1991 and 1992, as military investigators and journalists probed what had happened at the 1991 convention—which included the so-called Gauntlet, a line of rowdy and drunk junior officers who harassed and assaulted women passing by–they learned that the events at the Tailhook convention of 1991 were predated by similar behavior in early years. And they discovered that Lehman, as Navy secretary, had been an enthusiastic participant.
In his 1995 book, Fall from Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy, Greg Vistica, the San Diego Union-Tribune reporter who broke the Tailhook scandal, described a scene from the 1986 Tailhook meeting:
When the door to the suite at the Las Vegas Hilton opened, a prominent member of President Ronald Reagan’s administration and a naked woman were clearly visible. He was lying on his back, stretched out in front of a throng of naval officers. There were probably one hundred men watching him, laughing with him….
Several of the Navy and Marine officers now crammed into the room…knew him personally and worshiped him. Many knew he was married and had three children. Almost everyone knew who he was, which made the show that much more fascinating….
Most of the officers in the room, including the man on his back, were hard-drinking renegades. Some had been partying for days, others for hours. The carpet was spongy and damp from alcohol spilled on it by drunken military men. The room itself reeked with the odor of booze and sweat. But nobody seemed to care much. All eyes were on the man and the naked woman standing over him, wagging her bare rump in a teasing motion. The men in the room went into a throaty uproar at the site, and their cheers and laughs grew louder as the show went on.
The man on the floor was Lehman. And this was the example he was setting at this particular Tailhook convention. Another account of the Tailhook scandal–The Mother of All Hooks: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Tailhook Scandal by William McMichael–noted that Lehman ate whipped cream out of the stripper’s crotch.
Lehman, who had once been a Navy pilot, left his post as Navy secretary the following year—four years before Tailhook would become a controversy. But the 1993 report on Tailhook ‘91 conducted by the Pentagon’s inspector general concluded that the 1991 convention was “the culmination of a long-term failure of leadership” in the Navy. According to the report, “the nature of the misconduct at the annual convention was well-known to senior aviation leaders….We were repeatedly told that such behavior was widely condone by Navy civilian and military leadership.” A footnote in the report stated:
Throughout our investigation, witnesses told us remarkable incidents at past Tailhook conventions. Incidents related by witnesses included a high-ranking Navy civilian official dancing with strippers in hospitality suites.
The IG’s report noted that Tailhook had spun out of control during Lehman’s tenure as Navy secretary: “By many accounts, the increase in rowdy and improper behavior culminated at Tailhook ’85.” After that convention, one Tailhook Association board member privately complained to the group, “Dancing girls performing lurid sexual acts on Naval aviators in public would make prime conversation for the media.” But no steps were taken—by the association or the Navy–to rein in the Top Gun aviators. And Lehman’s antics at the 1986 gathering sent an obvious signal: party on, men.
1n 1996, Lehman, appearing on ABC News’ This Week with David Brinkley, downplayed the Tailhook affair. Asked if he had participated in public lewdness at one of the conventions, he said that was unimportant and railed against “gutter reporting,” insisting that Tailhook ’91 should have been nothing more than a minor story. Speaking more broadly about the military during the Clinton years, Lehman added, “This is not a touchy-feely bureaucracy here. It has to have a macho, tough, warrior culture, and that’s what’s being eroded.”
Lehman’s involvement in the Tailhook scandal did not harm his career. In the past two decades, he has been a businessman and has sat on the board of several corporations, while working with hawkish think tanks, including the Project for the New American Century. He served as a commissioner for the 9/11 Commission.
Though McCain was quick to denounce the misconduct at Tailhook ’91, it also became a campaign issue for him the following summer, when he was running for reelection to the Senate. In August, 1992, Newsweek published a story reporting that a 1987 Tailhook newsletter had noted that McCain had appeared at that year’s convention and had “participated in the camaraderie of the third [floor]”—where the carousing happened at Tailhook events. His Democratic opponent, Claire Sargent, criticized McCain for attending the 1987 convention and the 1990 gathering. McCain maintained that he had been unaware how rowdy the parties had become. He added, “I heard there was drinking going on, furniture sometimes broken, and occasional vomiting.” But McCain insisted that he had talked to several people who had been at Tailhook ’91 and that they had told him that the abuse of women guests “was unheard of until 1991.” The subsequent IG report on Tailhook would make it clear that was not true. But the Tailhook matter caused McCain no political pain—especially after Naval Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, a female pilot who had publicly charged she was harassed at Tailhook ’91, produced a statement praising McCain. He cruised to an easy reelection.
During that campaign, on September 24, 1992, McCain issued a statement regarding the ongoing Tailhook investigation. “It is my hope,” he said, “that we will take every necessary action to ensure that every man in every service who crossed the line, either in participating in the abuses at Tailhook or in covering them up, receives whatever penalties apply.” McCain praised the current Navy secretary for proceeding with the inquiry. He said nothing about the previous secretaries, including his good friend, John Lehman.