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The Navy is being damaged by the "gutter reporting" of journalists out to find scandal in the ranks, former Navy Secretary John Lehman says.

The Reagan administration official also condemned the Clinton White House for imposing policies of "political correctness" on the Navy and the Senate Armed Services Committee for impeding the career advancements of officers linked to the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal.It is "terribly damaging to the very fiber of the Navy as an institution, this continuing attack from so many quarters," Lehman said Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."

Appearing earlier on the program, Deputy Defense Secretary John White denied that the Navy's combat readiness has suffered because of a string of incidents, including Tailhook, a recent rash of F-14 fighter plane crashes, criminal activities at the Naval Academy and the suicide of the service's top officer, Adm. Jeremy Boorda.

"The Navy is doing well. It is performing its missions around the world," White said. "At the same time, the society's changing and the Navy's changing, and it's a struggle."

But Lehman pointed to reports of sexual abuse at the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association, a support group for naval aviation, as an example where officers were victims of media "character assassination."

Following what should have been a minor story, he said, "14 admirals have been cashiered, 300 naval aviators have been driven out of the Navy or their careers terminated."

Questioned about his own alleged public lewdness at a 1981 Tailhook convention as detailed in a new book, Lehman didn't deny the story outright. But he called it a "perfect example of the depths that coverage of the Navy has fallen to.

"Every Navy leader of recent times and now every senior admiral has been subjected to this kind of gutter reporting," he contended.

Lehman compared Boorda's suicide to the 1949 death of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, who became depressed by what he considered unfair attacks on his policies and jumped from a window two months after resigning his post.

Lehman said the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by such friends of the military as Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., had stood by while the careers of more than 300 naval personnel were being ruined, and was now holding up the promotions of another 90 naval aviators linked to Tailhook. "And not one of (the committee members) stood up and said, `Enough.' "

But Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., a senior member of the House National Security Committee, said the Navy was to blame for not adjusting quickly enough to changes in American society.

The service had "a different attitude for a long time about what sailors do when they go ashore or what they could do at Tailhook, and so forth," she said. "So for a long time, people kind of turned the other way and said, `Well, that's a way they relieve stress.' "