Naval Gazing

In four years Texan John Dalton has distinguished himself as U.S. Secretary of the Navy— though it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

JOHN DALTON, THE SECRETARY OF THE NAVY, returned to his home state of Texas on a blazing hot day last fall to preside over the commissioning of the U.S.S. Gonzalez. The destroyer was named for Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley town of Edinburg, joined the Marines, and was sent to Vietnam. He was killed there after fighting with such valor that he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Nearly the whole town of Edinburg came to the naval base at Ingleside for the ceremony, including his mother, Dolia, who had raised him on her own. Twenty-nine years after her son’s death, Dolia still cries when she talks about it, and she broke down at the microphone. Afterward Dalton read aloud a letter to her from President Clinton: “All Americans owe a debt to you. With the commissioning of this ship, we hope to pay a small portion of that debt.”

With its mix of patriotism, politicking, and pageantry, the dedication was a vintage Dalton moment, and it showed why this is the perfect time for a person like him to be the Secretary of the Navy. The job, a civilian post appointed by the president, has been more ceremonial and more political following post—World War II reorganizations of the Department of Defense. Control of military operations—such as the movement of vessels and the firing of weapons—was placed in the hands of uniformed officers, while the civilian leader retained control over personnel, budget, and training. A large part of Dalton’s job also involves lobbying Congress and the public. As if fate were conspiring to push the nature of the job even further in that direction, since the 55-year-old Dalton took over in 1993 the Navy has been consumed by a series of fire storms: the Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal, the suicide of chief of naval operations Mike Boorda, and cheating among midshipmen at Annapolis. “I was troubled by the fact that I knew the Navy was better than it was being portrayed in the news,” says Dalton. For him, politics is not a dirty word; he was a key fundraiser for the Democratic party from the mid-seventies until he accepted his post as Secretary. And the ceremonial aspects of the job clearly come naturally to him. If Dalton lacks the charisma of a Colin Powell, the worst that anybody says about him is that he is bland (Dalton is famous among the Washington press corps for giving the same speeches over and over again). But then again, blandness can serve as an antidote to scandal. In other words, Dalton seems well suited to the increasingly politicized role he has taken on. This may in part explain why, even though his record isn’t spotless (he once owned a savings and loan that failed), his tenure has led to persistent rumors that he intends to come home to Texas one day and run for office.

After the commissioning of the Gonzalez, Dalton and his entourage boarded an airplane to fly from Ingleside to San Antonio, where he was scheduled to address the local chapter of the World Affairs Council, a nonprofit group that studies foreign policy. During that flight and a subsequent hop to Waco, Dalton told me about his upbringing. He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where his father was a trainmaster for the Kansas City Southern Railway Company. He attended the Naval Academy because of his admiration for the Navy football team and his uncle Roy Bale Dalton, a highly decorated Navy pilot in World War II. After graduating from the Academy in 1964, John served on the U.S.S. Blueback, one of the last diesel submarines used by the Navy.

In 1965 Dalton applied to the prestigious nuclear submarine program. Following a rigorous screening process, he was assigned to the U.S.S. John C. Calhoun, where he was responsible for the vessel’s nuclear reactor and propulsion system. But he didn’t like the work. “I wasn’t any good at being a nuclear engineer,” he said. “I’m not that technically oriented, and this was highly technical stuff. I was able to get through, but it was a struggle.”

But Dalton soon discovered something he was quite good at: playing the stock market. In 1969, deciding that he enjoyed investing more than engineering, Dalton left the service to get his master’s degree in business administration from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the country’s top MBA programs. From there he went to work selling securities for the Dallas office of the investment banking firm Goldman, Sachs. That was the beginning of his career as a businessman, which, many years later, would lead him back to the Navy.

We landed in Waco, and Dalton broke off our conversation. He was visiting the Raytheon E-Systems’ Airborne Systems Division, where he was scheduled to address the employees, greet some local politicians, and meet with a group of businessmen. Dalton met the business contingent first, then hustled over to a large hangar where a crowd of Raytheon employees was assembled. “The men and women of the armed forces count on you, and you deliver,” Dalton told them. “That’s your reputation.” After his speech we headed back to the airplane, which was waiting to take us to Dallas, where the Secretary would have lunch with some up-and-coming power brokers and dinner with Mayor Ron Kirk. As he said good-bye, Dalton shook hands with the Raytheon executives and local politicians, handing each one a large coin stamped with the flag of the Secretary of the Navy.

Once we were settled into our seats again, he resumed the narrative of his career. In 1975, while at Goldman, Sachs, Dalton met Jimmy Carter, who was in the middle of what appeared to be a Hail Mary pass attempt at the White House. They had a lot in common; both were Southerners, both had attended the Naval Academy, and both had served on nuclear submarines. The Democratic party apparatus in Texas had

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