Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has taken aim at Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr.'s beloved strategic home-porting program and, in an extraordinary slap, said he will not even discuss the issue with the outspoken Navy leader.
Pentagon officials have learned to take cover when Goldwater, the blunt onetime presidential nominee, dispatches a letter with the phrase "quite frankly" in the first paragraph. But even those accustomed to Goldwater's directness are buzzing over how frank he was in a March 7 letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
Goldwater wrote that Lehman's $800 million plan to disperse the fleet in a dozen new ports is "pure unadulterated politics." Moreover, he said, if Weinberger wants to discuss the matter, he should leave his boyish Navy secretary on the Virginia side of the river; any discussion with Lehman, Goldwater wrote, "can produce nothing but political results."
Veteran Lehman-watchers said the champion of the 600-ship Navy, who rarely hesitates to venture an opinion, had angered Goldwater by lobbying vigorously against the chairman's Defense Department reorganization plan. Goldwater views the revamping as his last major effort in Congress, and Lehman has done everything he can to torpedo it.
"It's all pique," one observer said. "Goldwater's really hacked that Lehman tampered with his bill."
A spokesman for Goldwater referred inquiries to committee staff, who said they could not comment on the politics of Pentagon reorganization. But one staffer said Goldwater is convinced that the home-porting plan does not make sense.
Most Navy ships are now homeported in Norfolk; Charleston, S.C., and San Diego and Long Beach, Calif. Lehman has argued that berthing some ships in other ports, such as Staten Island, N.Y.; Everett, Wash., and Corpus Christi, Tex., will make the fleet less vulnerable.
The General Accounting Office recently accused Lehman of understating the costs of his plan and failing to justify it on strategic grounds. Lehman fired back that the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, is not a "competent authority" to judge, and said the GAO had understated costs of expanding existing ports to accommodate new ships.
Congressional aides said Goldwater's letter might doom the fleet dispersal plan, but at least one Navy official shrugged it off. "Nobody really thinks it's the death knell of home-porting," the official said.