Friday, February 8, 2013


A commenter yesterday was wondering: why John Tower? Why did the Senate turn on him in 1989, when George H.W. Bush nominated him for Secretary of Defense?

It certainly was a big deal, in many, many ways. First, as I've noted several times, as a precedent: before that, the Senate had a long tradition of pretty much rubber stamping every cabinet-level nominee (the exceptions were few, and usually in the final year of a presidency)...after that, cabinet confirmations have been far more contentious. But the Tower rejection in particular had two enormous consequences. Tower's replacement was Dick Cheney; if Tower is confirmed, Cheney stays in the House and probably never becomes VP, and who knows what policy consequences flow from that. Meanwhile, Cheney had been House Minority Whip, and he was replaced there by Newt Gingrich. If Tower is confirmed, Cheney, and not Newt, likely winds up as Speaker of the House in 1995.

As a Senator, Tower was actually a historic figure; when he won the special election to replace LBJ, he became the first Republican elected to the Senate from a confederate state.

As far as why Tower got into trouble, far as I know, it was pretty much all personal, based on drinking, other misbehavior ("womanizing"), and, presumably, just not being a very nice person. Most of the public discussion was centered on drinking, but I think it was generally thought that his former Senate colleagues were happy to have an excuse to do him in. I'm sure there was also more than a little partisan opportunism, too, but if the question is why Tower and not the other Bush nominees, that doesn't really explain anything. In the event, three Democrats and all the Republicans supported him, and he lost 47-53.

At any rate, all of this is mostly just an excuse to copy out an anecdote from the Congressional Record I came across last night while I was doing yesterday's Watergate post. It's from the debate over establishing the Senate Watergate Committee, and the Republicans are offering an amendment to ensure they get a share of the staff on that committee...the conservation gets into whether Republicans should be entitled to a share of staff funding, or personnel, or if it needs to be specified that it's professional staff. We're in February 1973, and this is what things were like in the United States Senate:


Mr. TOWER. One thing that worries me about that -- would the Senator read that again, please?

Mr. ERVIN.  It reads: "The minority members of the select committee shall have representation on the staff of the select committee equal at least to one-third thereof."

Mr. TOWER. That worries me a little, because that means that the majority might have all the professional staff and the minority might get all the secretaries. Under certain circumstances, that might be desirable. [Laughter.]

But in this particular instance, I think that what we are concerned about is...


  1. Wait, what about the Tower Commission? For you youngsters out there, there was a scandal in the waning years of the Reagan presidency called "Iran-Contra." Funny name. The Democratic Congress was incensed about Reagan arming "freedom fighters" in El Salvador, called the Contras, and passed a law preventing him from doing so.

    In response, Administration officials put together a plan to fund the Contras with money obtained from making deals with Tehran. I forget what they were selling them. Tehran was a big-time enemy, like North Korea, and dealing with them was also expressly prohibited.

    When the whole thing came out, Senator John Tower had an investigative commission on who did what and who knew what. At the time, everyone was pretty sure that Vice President George Bush knew everything that happened, because he was a former CIA head. But..... he was completely cleared! He said he had been in the men's room when the illegal stuff was discussed!

    I am not making this up!

    Senator Tower was well known for his desire to be Defense Secretary, and after President Bush was elected, he was nominated. He was then called out for being a womanizing alcoholic, unsuitable for the office. He retired shortly thereafter, declaring his desire to write a book about his experiences.

    Alas, he died in a fiery plane crash not too long after that.

    "Vote for Bush. He was in the men's room."

    1. Not El Salvador, Nicaragua. The US was backing the government against rebels in El Salvador and rebels against the government in Nicaragua. The government in Nicaragua was backing the rebels in El Salvador.

      The administration was secretly selling Iran TOW antitank missiles and Hawk antiaircraft missiles.

      For a fine source, see Scott C. Monje, The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History, Chapter 14, "Nicaragua, with a Side Trip to Iran."

    2. Is that your thesis?

    3. By the way, they didn't really arrange the missile sales in order to raise money for the Contras. These were just two things going on at the same time. When the NSC staffers realized that they were actually making money on the missile sales (though not that much because the middlemen were keeping a big hunk of it), they knew they wouldn't be able to explain where it had come from so they just gave it to the Contras.

      Now that was an administration that understood management.

  2. Speaking of Cheney, are any of you watching House of Cards?

  3. Nice post.

    The funny thing about the snippet is that, if you want any organization to run, you really probably want the secretaries and the janitors over the professional staff.

  4. I've often thought that Democrats must have been somewhat motivated by Bush profoundly negative and personal campaign in '88. After all, if Michael Dukakis' "character" can be grounds for a presidential campaign why can't Tower's personal behavior? However, I've never seen any hard evidence of this, has anyone else ever heard this theory?

    1. Maybe, if Dukakis had been more charismatic. Bush also ran against Clinton's character. A lot of the smears the Clintons endured in the first two years were continuations of the failed Bush political campaign.

  5. Remember thinking at the time that it was strange to see senators object to a nominee for . . . drinking?! That would be like senators objecting to a nominee's egotism.

  6. What we know about Cheney's devious nature might lead one to suspect he was the one behind the effort to bring down Tower.

  7. I can't help but imagine that scene filmed in the style of "Mad Men". Even though it's about a decade later.

    1. Yup, that's pretty much what I was thinking when I read it.

      Granted, it's a decade later but much more Southern...

  8. Jonathan,

    Thanks for answering my question. ROFL at a Senator stating that today.

    1. I think you understate the case against Tower, though I'll admit I'm a little biased because I just read a very thorough 1989 New Yorker article about the confirmation battle. I got the impression that the tide didn't begin to turn until Sam Nunn expressed reservations about the FBI report; one aspect of this I think gets overlooked is that Senators could not discuss the report's findings in detail, so the allegations of drinking and "womanizing" were not as vague as the Republicans had argued during the fight, and their accusation that Democrats were not providing examples was disingenuous at best (especially because they, too, saw the report). In addition, because Nunn was so widely respected, his view was taken more seriously and he took caution in asserting that he was concerned about Tower's qualifications specifically for Defense - not from the Administration in general.

      That being said, Tower was not particularly well-liked and there was certainly partisan opportunism (interestingly, Nancy Kassebaum, the only Republican to vote against Tower, promised the Bush Administration she would vote for him if it was tied) and I think it's interesting that these personal issues clouded a much more troubling conflict of interest - Tower's dealings with an assortment of defense contractors.

      In terms of why Tower fell, though, I think it was the symbolic significance of Sam Nunn's opposition (if only because on a practical level, it made it easy for Democrats to fall in line).

      FUN FACT: Tensions got so bad at one point that one Senator vowed to name any Senator he saw drunk on the Senate Floor in the future.


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