A Personal and Political Memoir
By John Tower
Little, Brown. 388 pp. $22.95
SOME YEARS ago John Tower toyed with the idea of writing a rather scholarly tract about what he perceived as the growing encroachment by Congress on the powers of the president. Little did he know. Two years ago, the former Republican senator from Texas got a first-hand look at the problem when his nomination as President Bush's first secretary of defense was shot down by the Senate in a bitter, partisan fight that threatened to spoil relations between the White House and Democrats in Congress at the beginning of Bush's presidency. Whatever intentions Tower had for a restrained or dispassionate memoir apparently disappeared with that vote. This is a book about settling scores.
It's not surprising that this book gets personal. The Senate battle revolved around allegations -- many of them never proved -- about Tower's past drinking habits and his fondness for the opposite sex. It was an often tawdry, if gripping, battle, and the book is repayment in kind. It's hard to imagine that Tower's chronicle of defeat will have much appeal outside the Beltway, despite his efforts to wrap the narrative around his thoughts on legislative and executive branch prerogatives. But there's enough juicy, gossipy stuff in its pages -- including his account of how President Reagan kept changing his story on the Iran-contra scandal to the investigative commission Tower headed -- to feed the appetites of political voyeurs in Washington.
There are plenty of villains and some heroes (including Tower's first wife, Lou, who stood nobly by her former husband throughout the long ordeal and to whom the book is dedicated) but no villain larger than Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to oppose Tower's nomination and carried all but three of his fellow Democrats with him.
Nunn is a respected figure in the U.S. Senate, but in Tower's book he is an inexperienced, insecure and petty politician who suffers from blind ambition (to be president?). In Tower's view, Nunn decided to oppose the nomination because he wanted to run the Pentagon from Capitol Hill and feared that Tower was too smart and powerful to let that happen. In all ways that Tower sees himself fit to be defense secretary, Nunn is judged to be lacking. From Tower's perspective, Nunn grew up in isolated privilege, while Tower thrived in his own hardscrabble background. Tower is brave, visiting troops in dangerous situations when he was chairman of the same Armed Services Committee; Nunn is timid. Tower is loved by his aides, many of whom go on to more prominent jobs in government and industry. Nunn, says Tower, is a distant boss who disdains his staff.
Tower asserts that Nunn helped to concoct a personal case against him, allowed raw FBI files to seep into public consciousness to support that case, then cooked up a conflict-of-interest charge as a sideshow to give some of his Democratic colleagues "the fig leaf to hide their moral nakedness" in his effort to defeat the nomination. In Nunn's hip pocket throughout the long fight, says Tower, was Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who is depicted as a political weakling so anxious to please Nunn that he became a psychological hostage to the Georgia Democrat in the destruction of Tower's reputation.
John Tower is not subtle as he settles his scores. For the most part he delivers the elbows directly. Ohio Sen. John Glenn is "not the brightest guy in Washington." Nebraska Sen. James Exon "drinks and drinks heavily." South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings is the "Senate bully," a "true demagogue" who is "a study in arrogance and pomposity." NBC's Andrea Mitchell is "the most viciously partisan reporter I've ever seen." CBS's Bob Schieffer is nothing more than "a golfing buddy of Sam Nunn."
But sometimes Tower is indirect. When the discussion turns to allegations that Tower provided defense industry clients with advice based on classified information, Tower not only denies the charges but points out that Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy once did make classified material public. Speculating on the motives of Senate Majority Leader George P. Mitchell, who played a key role in the fight, Tower speculated that Mitchell was still bearing a grudge from the time Tower exposed Mitchell's ignorance on strategic doctrine in a Senate floor debate.
Occasionally Tower uses others to make his points. The opening chapter is a nicely paced reader built around the roll call that defeated the nomination. As Tower recounts it, the name of Sen. Nancy Kassebaum is called, and she votes no (the lone Republican to do so). Tower then writes: " 'Bitch!' A woman on my staff flung the word at the screen and for a moment the spark of her anger seemed to warm up the bleak office." Having delivered the blow by surrogate, Tower writes several paragraphs later, "Unlike my staff, I couldn't summon up an epithet" against the Kansas senator.
Tower's retelling is selective. He recounts a colloquy with Sam Donaldson on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" the day he took his famous pledge to refrain from drinking if confirmed by the Senate. Donaldson had confronted Tower with the charges of womanizing.
"What's your definition of womanizing, Sam?" Tower asks.
Donaldson replies, "I don't know. I simply -- " when he is cut off by Tower.
"Well, all right." THAT'S WHERE Tower leaves the anecdote, with him having the upper hand. He forgets a later exchange with Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio. Asked the same question, she deftly deflated Tower by saying, "Well, I think most women . . . know it when they see it, senator."
No doubt John Tower is due his side of the story. The Senate hardly crowned itself in glory in defeating his nomination, with a number of senators hiding behind Nunn's prestige. Hypocrisy was evident during the long debate. The use of raw FBI files raised questions that remain unanswered. (Tower discovered that the FBI haad dredged up three years' worth of receipts from a liquor store and deli in Dallas that included spending on "mineral water, beer, wine, pate, hors d'oeuvres and gift items.") The question of how much latitude a president should have in naming his own cabinet got drowned in the pool of partisanship. It was a personal assault and Tower chooses to respond personally. But in succuumbing to his desire to even the score, he missed an opportunity. His book may titillate and make his supporters smile. But in the end, it still leaves John Tower tarnished.
Dan Balz is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post.