Hugh Shelton was impeccably apolitical while serving as the nation’s top military man under Presidents Clinton and Bush. Now, not so much. He talks to Lloyd Grove about Bill Clinton (good), Donald Rumsfeld (bad), and John McCain (crazy), among others. Among the highlights: • Rumsfeld, according to Shelton, is a power-mad know-it-all who won’t listen to military advice. • McCain is a ranting bully with “a screw loose.” • Gore is a supercilious grandstander who once interrupted an Oval Office meeting to berate Shelton for a military mishap, only to be swatted away by Clinton. • Clinton is “a man of great character,” Shelton tells The Daily Beast about Clinton, who tearfully apologized to him for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. • Shelton also insists that the Pentagon’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy, recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, should remain in place.
Retired Army General Hugh Shelton—whose new memoir, Without Hesitation, is a dishy, take-no-prisoners account of his tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—hates being called naïve.
Quite the contrary, in Shelton’s version of his four years as the nation’s top military man, from October 1997 through September 2001 under Presidents Clinton and Bush, he comes off as a skilled, occasionally sly political power-player.
“I could hug you for saying that,” the 68-year-old, 6-foot-6 warrior-bureaucrat told me Thursday from his native North Carolina. “ Tom Ricks [the respected military analyst] had a blog out and said he thought I was very naïve to the ways of Washington. But what we accomplished was through operating behind the scenes. It was playing one party off against the other. It was taking advantage of a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled Congress, and weaving in and out to get what you needed for the Department of Defense.”
Shelton, who over a 38-year Army career saw combat in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, said bureaucratic warfare is at once different and similar. “It’s kind of apples and oranges,” he said. “I enjoy challenges wherever they are, and certainly combat is one of those, where you’ve got a challenge a second. You’ve got to be thinking about it every second, anyway. And working in the Pentagon, with the weight of every decision that’s made there and the hundreds of thousands of people that it impacts, carries the same level of adrenalin, if you will.”
A courtly Southerner with a soft accent, the general uses the opportunity of authorship to sink his fangs into John McCain and Donald Rumsfeld, the Arizona senator and former Bush defense secretary. Al Gore also comes in for some sharp-clawed score-settling. Shelton portrays McCain as unhinged and unreasonable—a ranting bully with “a screw loose.” Rumsfeld, meanwhile, is a deceptive, power-mad know-it-all consumed with personal vanity and thwarting potential challengers, and unwilling to listen to expert military advice. Gore comes off as a supercilious grandstander who gets swatted away dismissively by the brilliant Bill Clinton.
“I don’t know what was going on, but I also know from my own people that McCain’s own people were quite concerned about him there for awhile.”
“I don’t know what was going on, but I also know from my own people that McCain’s own people were quite concerned about him there for awhile,” Shelton said of the volatile senator, who seemed constantly to be firing insults at him during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. During one such tirade, he sent a note to Shelton’s fellow witness, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, who had been best man at McCain’s second wedding: “I’m glad he’s your friend and not mine.” Shelton added that he’s very relieved McCain wasn’t elected president and is “comfortable” with Barack Obama as commander in chief. (The general endorsed Hillary Clinton, but refuses to acknowledge the distinct probability that he ultimately voted for Obama.) Yet he thinks it’s fine if the 74-year-old McCain is reelected to a fifth term a little more than two weeks from now.
“He’s one of 100 senators, so I really don’t think there’s any problem or any issue with that,” Shelton said. “I think he’s got a lot to offer, and I think he does a lot of good for us in terms of being a balancing figure in the Congress.”
McCain was likewise taking the high road Thursday: “Senator McCain is proud of his service to our country and proud of General Shelton's service to our country,” his press secretary emailed me.
In another priceless anecdote, Shelton recounts that when General Wesley Clark, Clinton’s top gun at the U.S. European Command, was thought to be overstepping his authority by giving too many interviews, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen ordered Shelton to transmit the following message to Clark: “Get your fucking face off TV.” And Shelton writes that counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke occasionally proposed “some wild-haired ideas” for military operations, in one case a logistically impossible helicopter attack on Osama bin Laden in a remote corner of Afghanistan.
“I think Dick saw too many Rambo movies,” Shelton said. “Every bureaucracy needs guys like Dick Clarke and Dick Holbrooke [President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan] because they kind of shake it up and make people think about things they might not think about otherwise.” Holbrooke “is a very smart guy, a seasoned diplomat, and although he breaks glass quite frequently, I think he can do a lot of good for us.”
Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, had this to say about Shelton’s harsh critique: “General Shelton and Secretary Rumsfeld were not an ideal fit. They operated at notably different paces. Rumsfeld had a sense of urgency at the Pentagon, and some senior officials adjusted better than others.”
Former Pentagon official Douglas Feith, who Shelton includes in a cabal of neoconservative warmongers including Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, also defended his former boss: “Rumsfeld had an unusual management style and was tough on people. But the notion that he was close-minded and acting like knew everything is so far off base.”
As for Gore, Shelton told me that when the vice president burst into an Oval Office meeting to demand, “General Shelton owes you a goddamn explanation” for a military mishap in the Balkans, “Clinton interceded and said ‘Cool it.’” Shelton added: “I don’t have any animosity toward the vice president.” But on Election Day in November 2000, “that particular race was one where I really did wait until I walked up and pulled the lever to decide. I voted for George W. Bush.” Gore’s spokesperson didn’t respond to an email.
Any regrets about helping install a president who, in his subsequent view, committed the U.S. to an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq, whereas Gore was a vocal critic of Bush’s post 9/11 military adventurism and probably would have focused on Afghanistan, and on capturing or killing bin Laden?
“I’m not sure about the latter or the other thing either,” Shelton answered. “When I looked at who would lead the country, I cast my vote for the guy I thought would make the best leader.”
Had President Bush asked him to serve a third two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Shelton said he might have been successful in convincing the president not to invade Iraq.
“I certainly would have tried, no question about that, and I would have teamed up with Colin Powell,” Bush’s first secretary of state who first warned against the pitfalls of an invasion but, playing the good soldier, ended up arguing for it before the United Nations—using what turned out to be bogus intelligence.
By the way, Shelton obviously loves Bill Clinton (whom he portrays as a wise and thoughtful commander in chief, man enough to admit his mistakes) and said he likes George Bush (even if he let the cabal persuade him to pursue the unwarranted invasion).
“I had great respect for both President Clinton and President Bush, but I worked a lot longer with Clinton, of course,” Shelton told me. “He had a staff around him that was more effective and had more teamwork.”
As recounted in the book, a tearful Clinton took the general aside, near the end of his presidency, to apologize for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“I was moved, because I thought it showed great character,” said Shelton, who notes that Clinton was one of his first visitors at Walter Reed Army Hospital in 2002, when he was recovering from a freak home-maintenance accident, a terrible fall from a ladder that left him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.
Shelton said he continues to be a supporter of Clinton’s notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy regarding gays in the military, even if a federal judge has just declared it unconstitutional and ordered the Obama administration to stop enforcing it.
“I happen to believe that it has been in place for 17 years and it has served our nation and our military well,” Shelton said. “I personally believe it strikes the right balance between the gay community and the individual who is gay and the requirement that the military has, with guys that are living together 24-7 in very tight quarters.”
He said the administration should await the results of a survey of military personnel ordered by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates before moving forward, and discounted the recent testimony of Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that gays probably should be allowed to serve openly. “You would have to be concerned that the secretary and the chairman might be trying to support the administration, which we all know would like to do it,” Shelton told me. “I’m more concerned when the four service chiefs [of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force] say we don’t agree. I think we need to listen to those guys.”
And he dismissed the popular comparison to the time when President Harry Truman racially integrated the services.
“Those who try to mix the color of one’s skin with sexual preferences, I think, are mixing apples and oranges.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.