WASHINGTON — When Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, publicly revealed mentioned April 6 that the US Navy would name a new destroyer after retired Sen. Carl Levin, D-Wis.consin, fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Seapower subcommittee were quick to praise the choice.
"Thank you for that pleasant news item about the [USS] Carl Levin," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.issippi, chairman of the subcommittee. "I think you saw heads nodding on both sides of the table. Senator Levin is a distinguished and thoughtful American statesman and was as even-handed a chairman as I've ever served with in my 21 years in the House and Senate. So, that's excellent news."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.,ew Hampshire, echoed Wicker’s approval.
"Let me just add my congratulations to Senator Levin," Ayotte said. "I can't think of a better person to name the ship after. That's great."
But at least one prominent Republican in the House begs to differ with the choice.
"I would like an explanation as to how this decision properly reflects Navy ship-naming rules," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.ornia, wrote Tuesday in a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who oversees the service’s ship-naming process.
"It is important that the Navy adhere to its own ship-naming rules and take every effort necessary to avoid politicization of this process," Hunter wrote.
A US Navy graphic depicting the future USS Carl M. Levin.
Photo Credit: US Navy
Hunter is a long-time critic of Mabus' choices for ship names, in particular the secretary's 2011 choice to name a support ship after union organizer and activist César Chavez, a selection that annoyed many conservatives. Hunter raised enough of a ruckus that the Navy and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) each produced reports on current and past ship-naming practices.
Hunter, in his letter, took pains to note this most recent objection was not directed at Levin personally, rather it's aimed at the choice of the name of a non-veteran for a destroyer.
Such ships, the Navy notes in its online explanation, are "named for American naval leaders and heroes." The Navy and CRS also note that exceptions to the rule are not unusual.
"There are the typical exceptions," the Navy explains in an online document produced by the History and Heritage Command. "Roosevelt was named in honor of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, while Winston Churchill honors the great war leader of World War II." Churchill, of course, was English, although his mother was American-born.
The full text of Hunter's letter to Mabus.
Photo Credit: Office of Rep. Duncan Hunter
Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff, explained that the objections are based on the congressman's feeling that Mabus has improperly politicized the ship-naming process.
"There very well could be a ship out there for the USS Carl Levin, it's just not in the destroyer class," Kasper said.
"People who are strictly politicians don't fit the criteria for that particular kind of vessel. It has nothing to do with the individual himself, it has to do with the decision to name a destroyer after him.
"This is just another example," Kasper added, "of how Ray Mabus has politicized the Navy to the point of no return."
Hunter's letter noted that, according to CRS, "destroyers are to be named for deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard including Secretaries of the Navy."
The letter noted recent exceptions to the ship-naming rules, citing destroyers named for Thomas Hudner, a retired nNavy flag officer, Paul Ignatius, a former Navy secretary, and former Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for World War II Army combat service in Italy.
The Navy for several generations avoided the practice of naming ships for living persons, but in recent years a number of still-living people have been so honored. Hudner and Ignatius are listed as exceptions by Hunter because both are still alive.
Kasper also acknowledged the exception of the late Senator Inouye, a war hero.
But Levin, Hunter and Kasper argue, doesn't qualify for a deviation from the rules.
"If you want to make an exception, justify it," Kasper said. "Maybe there is a perfectly good explanation for why Secretary Mabus circumvented the rule book. But this name in no way fits the Navy's ship-naming convention for destroyers."