the immigrant boy who became an admiral known for his ability to move bureaucratic mountains -- in the end tripped over what the secretary of the Navy calls "these little trinkets."
The rise and fall of Adm. Rickover would have to be included in any Washington anthology entitled, "How Far the Mighty Have Fallen."
It was Rickover who electrified the world on Jan. 17, 1955, by sending the submarine Nautilus to sea with a revolutionary power plant. "Under way on nuclear power," the Nautilus radioed that day as the era of nuclear propulsion began.
It was Rickover who was censured last week by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. for using his power as a naval officer to obtain favors from the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp., the yard that built the Nautilus and a fleet of other nuclear submarines shepherded to completion by Rickover.
From 1961 to 1977, Lehman said at a news conference Tuesday, Rickover accepted, often after demanding them, "such things as earrings, pendants, fruit knives, suit cleanings, shower curtains, plastic laminated $50 bills, teak trays, ditty boxes, lunch boxes, paperweights and on and on -- on a rather extensive list." The value of what Rickover accepted, said Lehman, was "roughly $67,000."
It was Rickover to whom President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the Congressional Gold Medal in 1959 to express the nation's appreciation for developing nuclear propulsion for submarines and surface ships.
And it is Rickover who now has a letter of censure from the secretary of the Navy in his service jacket covering a Navy career dating to 1922, when the then-shunned Jewish midshipman was commissioned.
Lehman, who with President Reagan's blessing forced Rickover into retirement in 1982, typified the dilemma of the admiral's critics over the last three decades as he announced the letter of censure. Rickover was known as the naval officer who acted as a power unto himself, a virtual czar, but did get things done. His immunity from Navy discipline through the years was gained largely by winning the support of powerful members of Congress who protected him -- until 1982. By then, many of Rickover's protectors had left Capitol Hill.
Lehman, whom Rickover has called one of the "two biggest fools the Navy ever had," expressed anguish about the censure letter during the Tuesday news conference. "I have mixed feelings about this," Lehman said. "I think that Adm. Rickover should have acted better. A higher standard is expected of an admiral in the United States Navy.
"I think it's important that people remember that this man spent nearly 60 years in the Navy and has made a truly monumental contribution to this country's security and safety. His name will live for a very long time for the contribution he has made to our nuclear Navy, and well it should.
"So this fall from grace, if you will," Lehman concluded, "with these little trinkets should be viewed in the larger context of his enormous contribution."
Rickover, 85, refuses to concede that he has tripped, far less fallen, as a result of accepting gifts from Electric Boat that he said he gave to his wife and friends. Instead of admitting error, Rickover's lawyers said last week that the admiral is writing a rebuttal to Lehman that will go into his service jacket beside the letter of censure that now caps his naval career.