Another Fraternization Case (10/2/97)
Taking Stock Of Widnall's Tenure
Hans Mark, who served as secretary of the Air Force from 1979-81, first met Sheila Widnall when she was a graduate student at MIT. Reacting to her handling of the Flinn case, Mark says: "Kelly Flinn clearly was in the wrong. I wouldn't have worried if they'd court-martialed Flinn. But given the pressure, Sheila did the right thing by refusing an honorable discharge, which would have been a travesty. Sheila was between a rock and a hard place and she navigated it properly."
"She's always careful and prudent," says former CIA director John Deutch, who also knew Widnall at MIT and encouraged her to take the secretary's job when he was a Department of Defense undersecretary. "My only question is, 'Could the decision have been done quicker?' Too much time was spent deliberating it."
Deutch gives Widnall high overall marks for her tenure as secretary, especially for her efforts to visit bases and boost morale. "She's made everybody in the field feel important," says Deutch.
Gen. John Jumper praises Widnall's combination of technical expertise and an "engaged and caring personality."
"Any doubts anybody may have had about her leadership ability evaporated in their first conversation with her," says Jumper, Air Force deputy chief of staff for Air and Space Operations. "You can engage her in conversation on the mass density flow of a jet engine or about specific problems with child care in the Air Force, and she can speak with equal care, concern and expertise on either subject."
Robert Seamans, who taught with Widnall at MIT and served as secretary of the Air Force from 1969-1973, says he encouraged Widnall four years ago to take the job, but warned her ³you'll end up with some scar tissue.
"Until recently, she hasn't had such scar tissue," says Seamans, referring to the Flinn controversy. "She's done a good job of planning around space issues and with the personnel side of the Air Force. There's a tendency for the chief of staff and senior people in the military to put their arms around you and say, 'Everything will be fine, just do what we tell you.' You have to be wary of that. On the other hand, you report to the secretary of Defense. The challenge is to be your own person and to find out what's really going on and then make up your own mind. She's done that with a very fine hand."
But Frank Spinner, who represented Kelly Flinn, has a different assessment. "The sense is that she has remained somewhat aloof and inaccessible," says Spinner, a graduate of the Air Force Academy. "Being visible and accessible are different. While she's been visible, she has not been accessible to the average Air Force member. It's one thing to have your picture taken with the secretary, it's another thing to be able to talk to the secretary and be heard. Lt. Flinn knows that first-hand."
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Friday Oct. 10, 1997
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