Sea Control 150: Former Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, John and Margaret Dalton, Pt. 2

By Travis Nicks

We were honored to speak with former Secretary of the Navy John Dalton and his wife, Margaret Dalton, about their service during the Clinton administration. Read or listen to Part One of this two-part interview here.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 150: Former Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, John and Margaret Dalton, Pt. 2

TN: You served as a leader for essentially your entire life. You started as a naval officer. We’ve talked about your business career, where you were a leader in every organization you worked for – from Goldman Sachs up to your post at the top of the banking industry in the government. And of course, you became Secretary of the Navy. I’m just wondering what your advice would be to Sailors and junior officers that want to serve their country in the same capacity that you have, or to the same degree that you have.                                             

JD: I got unsolicited – shortly after I became Secretary, I received “The Timeless Traits of Leadership” that this minister had sent me from California. And I never had heard of him or knew him. But he and his staff did a retreat, and they came up with these eight traits of leadership. And I tried my best to live by those. And they are: a leader is trusted, a leader takes the initiative, a leader uses good judgement, a leader speaks with authority, a leader strengthens others, a leader’s optimistic and enthusiastic, never compromises absolutes, and leads by example. And I think those traits of leadership were very helpful to me when I was in office.

In terms of my prior career, I think you can summarize those eight traits of leadership in another leadership program –basically, know your stuff, be a person of character, and take care of your people. And, you know, I think if you do either of those eight traits or following the summarized version that was very helpful to me. But I want to emphasize the fact, Travis, that I had some success in business and in government, and I had some failures in business and government. And so you know, everything’s not pretty and rosy. I mean, I’ve had a business one time where I thought I was going to face bankruptcy, I avoided it, but there are ups and downs in business and in government. And I tell midshipmen when I talk to them, and I tell interns when I talk to them, the three things that you have to rely on when things go badly (and they will go badly for all of us)… I talk about having a lot of balls in the air, but three of those balls are crystal and those are you family, your faith, and your friends. And I think relying on those kinds of things had been very helpful to me throughout my career – are things that should be emphasized in nurturing all of those things.

TN: So, Mrs. Dalton, if we could transition over to asking you some questions.

MD: You may do that.

TN: So, Mrs. Dalton, how did you find being the First Lady of the Navy?

MD: I loved every minute of it. It was a great, great experience. It opened my eyes so much. We had not been married when my husband was in the Navy – he was in graduate school when we married. So it was my first experience in any kind of Navy life. I just, I loved every minute of it. As you said, there were some tough times that he had that I was there for, but he loved every minute that he was in that position. Every day, it could be a hard day, but it was a good day. And he looked forward to going in every day. And that made happy. That made me really happy.

TN: So what kind of experiences do you feel like you had before you became the First Lady of the Navy that contributed to how well you were able to help the Navy after you became the First Lady of the Navy?

MD: Well, I’ll have to say that people all my life have told me that I was a good listener. And every time people had issues, you know, they would come and talk to me. Every now and then Johnny would say to me, “Your shingle. Did you have your shingle out today?” And so that was one thing that was helpful to me – that I was able to listen to what I was being told.

And when he first became Secretary, I was asked what kind of Secretary’s wife I wanted to be, whether I wanted to be active or whether I just wanted to go to social things. And I said, “No, I really wanted to be active.” And the quality of life issues and working with the wives and families became my bailiwick. And I have never had any trouble talking with people. All our married life we’d been in a lot of social situations, and I always felt comfortable, and so I was never uncomfortable with new groups and visiting with new groups. And I think that that prepared me – having had those experiences in the past, and just knowing that I have to be aware of what people are telling me and listening and being able to respond, or being able to pass them on as they need to be passed on.

TN: Alright. So what got your eye about quality of life issues in the first place that made you want to focus on quality of life issues?

MD: Well, the first time we ever took a trip alone, we went to Hawaii. One of our first travels was to Hawaii. And the women picked me off and Johnny went to meet with Sailors and there were ships. And I went to look at housing and schools and, you know, medical things. And the first thing they did was to drive me to look at housing. The first place we went was to see the Air Force housing, which was just lovely – and I thought this is a great, great way – I’ve never looked at how people in the Navy lived.

And then they said, “Now we want to show you the Navy housing.”

And I said, “Where?” And they were telling me where it was, and they said where it was. And I said, “Well, is it near that slum area that we saw?”

And they said, “That is the slum area.”

And I knew that right away – I said, “That can’t be.” We went to look at the houses and I was appalled. I said, “We can’t have anybody living like this. Why would anybody be in the Navy – why would anyone want to be married to someone in the Navy if this is how you live?” I mean there were terrible termite problems, there were holes in roofs. I’ll never forget this house – they had a sort of porch. It wasn’t necessarily some sort of porch or some additional thing. And there was a big space between the roof lines. And any time it rained, which was every day, rain came down between those two rooms. You can’t live like that. It was awful, it was just awful.

I was always interested in the medical things, and when they had issues with medical things and how could they get such and such when they were too far away. And the educational things were pretty well taken care of because the schools were good. But the housing was a real issue. That sort of kind of became my thing.

JD: If I could interrupt, on the housing thing. When she went to see that Navy housing in Pearl Harbor, she did her thing and I did mine. We came back and we were changing clothes for dinner, and I said, “How was your day?”

And she started telling me about it and how bad it was, and literally teared up talking about how bad Navy housing was. And she said, “You can’t let Sailors live like this.”

And I said, “Okay, Margaret, when I get back to Washington, we’ll ask for a briefing on the housing, and I want you to come.”

So, we had this briefing which was scheduled for 30 minutes, and it lasted about an hour and 20 minutes. And the civil servant who was leading the briefing said, “Mr. Secretary, thank you for asking for this briefing. I want you to know that I’ve never met a Secretary of the Navy before, and I’ve certainly never given a briefing, but I’m happy to tell you about Navy housing.” And so she went on to talk about Navy housing.

And I realized that we had a big problem, I mean, Margaret had already told me about it, but I could see that it was a bigger problem than I thought. And we did some more homework on it, and I asked for a meeting with Bill Perry, Secretary Perry, who was the Secretary of Defense at the time, and a very outstanding leader. And I asked for a meeting with him, and I went in to see him, and it was just the two of us. I guess somebody told me – our office not to bring any staff, and he didn’t have anybody there. And so I laid it out for him. I said, “Here’s what the Air Force spends per capita. This is what the army spends per capita. This is what the Navy spends per capita. And this is what the Marine Corps spends per capita.” I said, “Mr. Secretary, retention is going to be a major problem if we don’t correct this.”

He asked a few questions and we went back and forth. And I wasn’t there more than half an hour, you know, I finished and he got it. And he said, “Let me look at this and I’ll get back to you.”

Before the day ended, John Deutch called me. He was the Deputy Secretary of Defense at the time, and said, “You’ll have 100 million additional dollars to spend in the next two fiscal years – the remainder of what’s left this year and next year on Naval housing.” And he said, “Do you want it all to go for Navy Housing?”

TN: It really is just amazing how you can affect so much change by listening and noticing what are clear problems to the people experiencing them, but would otherwise never be recognized.

MD: The other thing, too, about that, is that these women… I don’t think their husbands would have liked it if they had gone and told the Secretary because of their careers. But they didn’t feel at all hesitant to tell me things. And I could tell my husband without giving any names. But I know that if they’d gone up person to person and said something, then that would have been an issue for the husband for sure. The husband would have perceived it as a big issue. But they could tell me things, and they told me a lot of things. I heard a lot in five and a half years.

TN: One question that I was curious about is that over the time that you all served as the Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, there was quite a few scandals and tragic periods – to include to tragedy from Tailhook, we talked a little about budgeting but it had some real dramatic implications for the fleet. And then I think it was 1995, CNO Admiral Borda took his own life tragically. And there was just a series of very public and sad experiences for the Navy family. And I’m curious how you felt, or how you responded to that, and how you were able to console and help recover the Navy in that time.

MD: Well I do think that the people were really affected by that, and I think – I didn’t hear as much as I thought I would have hear about that when we would travel about that. I heard more around here about it.

TN: Around here in D.C.

MD: Yes. And I think that probably, an awful lot of the people here knew Admiral Boorda – the wives and, of course, the officers enlisted. But the wives, many of them knew Admiral Boorda. And so it was a personal thing for an awful lot of the people around here. And I think that, you know, you deal that the way you deal with the death of any friend or any associate. I think probably, you had a lot more backlash.

JD: Well, I recommended to the Secretary of Defense, after interviewing four or five or six – I don’t remember how many people I interviewed to be the CNO, all three and four star admirals. I don’t think I interviewed anybody who was less than three star. But I interviewed a number of people and you know, recommended to the Secretary of Defense that Admiral Boorda be selected. And we talked about the morale problem. And Mike Boorda was a people person. And he was the first enlisted Sailor that made it to four stars and I thought with the morale problem that we had, that he would be good for the navy. You know, there were those who disagreed with that. I think he was a good CNO. He had his faults like we all do, but I remember being with him the day before he committed suicide. And he was as happy and as full of life and, you know, vintage Mike Boorda, the day before.

As a matter of fact, you know, I have a budget that includes the Navy and Marine Corps, and there’s always a tousle between the two services in terms of, well, how the pie’s going to be split. But, you know, I only have so many dollars for the Navy Department, and we have to fund two services. But, the CNO, Mike Boorda, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Chuck Krulak, asked for an appointment with me and they came in to see me the day before the budget was released, for me to send it down to Bill Perry. And he’s, the controller for the Department of Defense. And they came in and did a high five in front of my desk, and they said, “We got a recommendation for you that we think – we’re both happy with and we hope that you’ll support.” You know, for them to give, you know, a high five in my presence – I mean, they just wanted to show me…

TN: I don’t think a lot of Marines would believe that General Krulak was capable of giving high fives.

JD: But he did. He did that day, and the next day, I was in a meeting with three or four people. And typically, if the CNO needs to see me, or the Commandant, his aide will come in to see my aide and say, “I hate to interrupt the Secretary, but my boss needs to see me right away.” And that didn’t happen. Chuck Krulak came busting in. I mean, I can remember how the door opened. And he came in, he said, “Admiral Mike Boorda has been shot. And, he was at his home, and we have circumvented that the Navy Yard with Marines, and we are going to find the perpetrator.”

You know, he committed suicide. And so I went immediately to the hospital. I asked, we had a press conference and so on, and I just said, you know, “This is a terrible tragedy.” And they asked me a lot of questions, and I said, “I really don’t know any of the details at this point.”

At that point, it wasn’t even confirmed that it was a suicide. But, the next day, in asking questions, I talked to Admiral Pease, who was CHINFO. I said, “I know you had a meeting with Mike Boorda that morning. Tell me about it.”

Well he said, “We had finished this other meeting,” And then he said. “‘You know, you have this meeting this afternoon with a reporter from Newsweek,” he said. Admiral Boorda said, “What does he want to talk about?’” And he said, “He wants to talk about the medals.” And he said, “We’ll just tell him the truth.” And then, it was about lunchtime, and he said, “I’m going home to lunch.”

And he took the keys to the car – normally, the driver, you know, would – and he said, “No, I don’t want you to drive me. I’m going to drive my car home.” And so he drove his car home. And he’d said he was going to go have lunch with his wife. Well, he knew his wife was not there. She was on some social function, and so she was not there. And so he went home and wrote two suicide notes: one to the Navy personnel, and one to his family. And walked out in the side yard and killed himself.

It was a tragedy, and I’ll tell you, I know that President Clinton went to Mike Boorda’s home, I believe it was that evening, and met with his wife and his other – his children, and spent like an hour and a half visiting with them. And that was never reported. But I know that’s, you know, the family members have told me that’s what he did. And he really empathized with people and spent quality time with them, when things like this happened. It was a big blow to the Navy, you know, when this happened. It really was.

TN: How did you all, as a team, go about getting the Navy back on track, and making the leadership transition happen smoothly, and recover from the emotional toll of the situation as an institution?

JD: It was, you know, one step in front of the other. I mean, it was a tragedy, but you know, we had a job to do, and my job was to name a new or recommend a new CNO. And, you know, I talked to several people and recommended Jay Johnson. And the Navy, you know, had a job to do and had to move on. I mean, it was a tragedy, and there was a wonderful service at the National Cathedral, and the President spoke, and I spoke. But anyway, I talked about what a fine – I read the true gentlemen that was back in, and I said this depicts Mike Boorda, you know, he was a gentleman. A true gentleman. And I also told a story about what a great ship-handler he was. One time, we were at sea, and they did a man overboard drill. And, you know, Mike Boorda said, “I’ll take the con.” And so you know, the CNO is the officer of the death, the conning officer for this man overboard drill.

TN: I’m not sure if I’d be mortified or enthused.

JD: Well, you know, he pulled that ship around, and I mean, you know, you could look over the side, and there was the life preserver – the lifeline, floating…the man overboard. I mean, it was… And Admiral Boorda said, “Mr. Secretary, do you want to do one?”

I said, “No, thank you.” I mean, I knew where my skills were, and they weren’t – I mean, ship-handling to that level? I couldn’t compete with that.

TN: That would be fun to watch.

JD: But that was, that got a big laugh from the congregation when I said no thank you. But anyway, you know the Navy and Marine Corps are resilient. And they marched off and continued to march. They got the job done and they had a job to do, and it was an unfortunate incident, and it really was a terrible tragedy.

TN: Mrs. Dalton – did you see an emotional toll having an effect on leadership morale in D.C. at the time?

MD: I did not. Yeah, I mean, it was sad, and it was a shock, and people talked about it. But I really don’t remember it as – as he said, there was a job to be done. And I understood there was a lot of talk, but that was pretty much what it was. But we all, everybody tried to be supportive of Betty Boorda. I was just saying, one of the great things about Mike Boorda was the enlisted just loved him. I mean, he was so close to them.

JD: He was the Sailor’s Sailor. I mean, you know, he really was.

MD: Yes, he really – that was one of his great, great things. They – all over the Navy – they all thought he was wonderful. And they were so proud that somebody who had started out as an enlisted had risen to that rank.

TN: As the first person to be prior-enlisted and then become a four-star admiral – you alluded a little bit to controversy about that kind of ascension. I’m just curious how that played out, and how that was taken into account in his selection as CNO.

JD: Like I said, we, earlier, we had a morale problem, and you know, Mike Boorda was the Sailor’s Sailor, and you know, there wasn’t much pushback when he was named. I mean, he got confirmed easily. I mean, he had been Chief of Naval Personnel and been on the Hill a lot and had a lot of friends on the Hill, and they were very supportive of his nomination.

MD: He made friends very easily.

JD: Yeah.

MD: He was a real easy person to like.

JD: He really was.

TN: With three people in leadership – in Navy leadership – at the time that had people on the mind and had quality of life as a focus (the two of you and Admiral Boorda), I’m curious how you found the quality of life issues to be taken by the fleet if you found that Sailors and Sailors’ families were receptive to the kinds of changes that you were making with housing and with a restored focus on people, or if that was taken strangely.

MD: Oh no. They were thrilled. They were thrilled with the improvements that were being made. I mean, I have people to this day who come up and thank me. They really do.

JD: Well, I tell you what. I have an email from a three-star Army general, just in the last couple of days, and he said, “Please give my regards to Mrs. Dalton, the best First Lady of the Navy the Navy ever had.” I mean, you know, this is an Army three-star who said that about her.

MD: Well, I think it became apparent that morale and quality of life and the families were high on his mind, in addition to what their husbands were doing and that kind of thing. And they knew that I was there to speak up for them. And I’d pass on whatever I saw and whatever I heard. Like I said, it’s amazing that people will still say something, you know, all these years later. And they’re out, their husbands are out, and they’ll just say, “Oh, I remember X, Y, you know.”

JD: I mean, we left office in ’98, I mean, that’s been almost, 20 years ago.

MD: And I think it’s been a very long time since anybody’s paid attention to the family life. I mean, I could be wrong, but I think it had not been a priority.

JD: Particularly in the Navy Department. I think the Air Force and Army, they had emphasized those issues more than we have.

TN: Navy families are notoriously resilient and famously tough. I’m just curious if you found that in your listening to the families talk, if there was any resilience to bring up issues, or if…

MD: Not to me. Not to me. They tell me everything. I mean, I know if they told their husbands they had told me these things, they might not be happy, but they would tell me anything. I’d go in and we’d have these meetings, and every time we’d go someplace, I’d meet with a good sized group of ladies, and they never held back. They knew that I would pass it out, that I was genuinely concerned about it, because I really was. As I said earlier, I had no prior knowledge of Navy life at all. My father had been in the Army during the war, but he was long out before I was born. Or he was out shortly after I was born. And so I never knew anything at all about military life, and certainly not about family life in the Navy. This was my first experience with it, and it was a huge eye-opener.

TN: How so? How was it an eye-opener?

MD: Well, first of all, I thought that the deployments – I can’t imagine having my husband gone all the time. And I found that everybody just rolled with it. They knew that that was their life. And I found two – it was great how they all just sort of knew each other. They’d been stationed someplace with someone else – we were together in Iceland, or we were together wherever it was, you know. And the family feeling within the Navy is just phenomenal. It really is. There’s so much support, which I had no idea about. I mean, I didn’t have a reason to know. So I’d go, and anything I learned about any kind of Navy life or Marine Corps family life was new. And it was generally, for the most part, it was wonderful. And nobody seemed to complain. At that time, as you said, they had six month deployments and it was a pretty regular thing. You knew your husband was going to be gone for six months before he’d be home. The one thing I did here was that, when they were coming home, the wives that were used to being in charge of everything, and the husbands that would come in and decide that would be in charge – and that point was always a hard breaking in for them, but for the most part, they knew that.

But now, it’s very different. And with – as you were talking about with the drawdown a while ago, now it’s very different. The Navy is so small now, you know, spread so thin, you have to be all things to all people and be all places for anybody, anything – whether it’s a conflict, or whether a potential conflict, or it’s a tsunami, or an earthquake – whatever. We’re there. You know, the active duty person is gone – and a lot. And they come in, and just because they’re back home, it doesn’t mean they’re really home because they’re training for the next deployment, or they’re out doing something else that’s so they’re not necessarily home. And I applaud the recommendation to increase the size of the Navy and Marine Corps because I think it’s very difficult for families now.

TN: You really get it.

MD: Well, it’s what I did. I mean I just think it’s got to be. And I think that living conditions now – I’m so pleased that the living conditions are better now. That’s so great because I can’t imagine leaving even for the six month deployment and leaving your family in these terrible conditions if they were 25 years ago – in a lot of places – not every place, but a lot of places – and being gone, and knowing that your family was living like that. Now you know that they’re in good, substantial, nice housing, have access to whatever they need – good medical care, good, you know. I think that’s a good reason for having people stay in. I think there are a lot of enlisted people who now stay. They got good housing, affordable housing, a good situation for schools – I think that helps with retention a lot.

But the fact that we’re so small and we have to be everywhere all the time, and there’s just not enough of us to do that without being deployed an awful lot of the time. And that’s – that is a hindrance to retention.

TN: For the Navy families that you’ve conversed with since you’ve left the Department of the Navy, I’m curious if you hear the same discussion – I don’t want to say complaint, but criticism, that the quality of life issues are sort of streaming back up again, because of the length in deployments and the reduction in maintenance budgeting.

MD: Well I don’t have a reason to hear that now. The people that I’m normally with are people who are in that sponsors group that I told you about, and they are far enough removed from that. They’re all – their husbands have been out for a long time. And so I don’t hear that much anymore. But the one thing that I do know is that they’re not enough. We do need to build up the size of the Navy and the Marine Corps so that the active duty person is not gone, all the time.

I have something else too, on that. I was talking to somebody and she said, “You know, the veterans have been great in really working on wounded warriors and that sort of thing.” But the veterans are particularly the ones who have not been out that long and who are pretty close to the situation. They could also be really beating the drums for increasing the size of the Navy and the Marine Corps. Cause they’re right there, they just left there and they haven’t been away for that long.

TN: Might be the reason they left.

MD: Very well could be. Could be unhappy wives who never saw their husbands, or unhappy husbands who never saw their wives who were deployed.

TN: So on a little bit of a lighter note, will you tell us about the sponsor program you’re involved in?  

MD: Oh, I will, I will indeed. I have the privilege of being the sponsor of the Seawolf submarine. And women who hves that privilege of cruising a ship and being the sponsor, is invited to join the Society of the Sponsors. And what that means is that anyone who has christened a ship can join this, and we’re kind of a – it’s a very unique group of people. And a sponsor of a ship is, as just about anybody knows (anybody within the Navy), the one person who is with that ship forever. There’s lots of different crews and lots of different captains, but there’s only one sponsor. It’s really a special bond between not just the ship and the sponsor but between the other people who are sponsors and who’ve had that experience. And it’s a good group of ladies and it’s a good thing to be – to be a sponsor.

TN: I had the privilege of going to the christening of the USS Tulsa is the first time I’ve ever had that opportunity. And seeing that whole ceremony, and the seriousness with which our sponsor, Kathy Taylor, took it was just a really cool experience.

MD: I’ll tell you… When I was president of the Society of Sponsors, and as president, I went to every ship that was – well, I was supposed to be. There were a couple I couldn’t go to. The christening and the commission of every ship that was, you know, in that group during the two years I was president of the organization. And it was great. It was just, they make you feel so special, and you just think, you know, you’re queen for a day. It’s a great experience.

TN: Well, Secretary Dalton, Mrs. Dalton, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with CIMSEC. Are there any last things you wanted to convey to our listeners?

JD: I loved my service as Secretary of the Navy and wouldn’t take anything for the experience and you know, our Sailors and Marines are special people and they get the job done. I’m very proud of them and grateful to them for what they did and wearing the cloth of our nation. They’re great people.

MD: And I will say people ask me what the best thing about being the Secretary’s wife was. And there were lots. We had the privilege of doing an awful lot of very wonderful things. But the best thing were the women, the wives, the families that I had the opportunity to meet and associate with during that time from all over the world. They really are special, special women, and I applaud them for everything that they day.

TN: Well, Sir and Ma’am, thank you so much for your time, and this unique opportunity to get your perspective and your insight. Thank you so much.

MD and JD: You’re welcome.

JD: Thank you.

John Dalton served as the 70th Secretary of the Navy from 1993 to 1998. 

Mary Dalton is Secretary Dalton’s spouse.

Travis Nicks formerly served as the Vice President of CIMSEC. These questions and views are presented in a personal capacity.

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

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