Military insiders, though, said this played little to no actual role in nixing Cartwright for the chairman's job.
Rather, the general's separation from his wife and gossip about personal dalliances -- none of which have been substantiated -- played a far greater role in sending the general into retirement, according to well placed sources. Cartwright was investigated last year by the Pentagon inspector general on reports of an improper relationship with a member of his staff, but was cleared of any wrongdoing.
"The combination" of rumor-mongering and the general's actual marital separation -- which became known in the Pentagon roughly three months ago -- "was [a] perfect [tool] for the people who didn't want him to get the seat," said one source. This and several other officials spoke on condition of not being named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
In the U.S. military -- an institution that remains more socially conservative than the general public -- unmarried officers rarely make it to general officer rank, and a separation or divorce is typically a career-killer. For a prospective chairman of the Joint Chiefs to be undergoing a personal issue of this sort was also unacceptable to a White House reportedly hypersensitive to any allegations of impropriety, some said.
For a time it seemed that Obama and Gates -- who will soon be replaced as Defense secretary by CIA Director Leon Panetta -- were prepared to go forward with the Cartwright nomination, despite the general's marital status, according to defense officials and others.
However, that changed over the past week or so, possibly because of Mullen's continued opposition to the move or because of emerging signs from Capitol Hill that Cartwright's confirmation might be contested, sources said.
The Marine general's last day of active duty is anticipated to be August 3, though he will likely take leave from his post as JCS vice chairman before that. He is not expected to take another job in the Obama administration, at least not in the immediate future, according to defense officials.
One candidate to fill Mullen's shoes being talked about this week is Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He is said to have indicated little interest in the job, having just become the new Army chief of staff. However, he could still accept the nomination if asked by the president, sources said. The White House is now scrambling to settle on its candidate for chairman, as a public announcement is expected as early as next week.