John Tower Brands A Few Hides


By John G. Tower

Little, Brown -- 388pp -- $22.95

Don't get mad, wise pols say; get even. And John Tower has clearly taken the old adage to heart. In Consequences, Tower exacts exquisite revenge on everyone who helped sink his nomination to be President Bush's Defense Secretary two years ago. This may sound like reading that's of interest primarily inside the Beltway, but don't be too quick to dismiss Tower's memoirs. They provide a lively, revealing glimpse of Washington through the eyes of one insider whose ambitions were dashed in a bizarre Washington power ritual.

Tower is bitter. Brother, is he. The Texan served for 24 years in the U. S. Senate, chaired its Armed Services Committee, was chief arms-control negotiator in Geneva under Ronald Reagan, and headed the special Presidential panel that investigated the Iran-contra scandal. But when President-elect Bush nominated the colorful conservative to be his Pentagon chief, Tower was swept away by a maelstrom of longstanding rumors of drinking and womanizing. "I don't so much resent my rejection by the Senate as the way it was done," Tower writes. He wouldn't have been surprised, he adds, to find the press "waiting beside a rickety wooden tumbril to take me off to the guillotine."

The executioner, in Tower's view, was Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Tower's successor as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and quite possibly a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1992. While Nunn's early opposition to the Persian Gulf war may have already damaged his ambitions, Tower makes a stab at doing the job himself. He portrays Nunn as a bloodless policy wonk so priggish that during the Senate's investigation, he asked Tower if he had ever been seen balancing an empty wine glass on his head. "Yes," Tower answered, "I do that every now and then with my friends and staff." Nunn was not amused.

In Tower's view, the powerful Nunn was determined to weaken Bush by denying him a key nomination. Nunn felt threatened by Tower's grasp of defense policy, he asserts, and Nunn calculated that winning this battle would enhance his Presidential prospects by showing that "he had enough clout to challenge the White House and get away with it."

Tower skewers Senator John W. Warner (R-Va.), the top Republican on the committee, as a "wholly owned subsidiary of Sam Nunn" whose desire to please conservative patrician Democrats in the Old Dominion got the best of him. But he saves his sharpest barbs for those across the aisle. He makes his own accusations about boozing: Senator J. James Exon (D-Neb.), he claims, "drinks and drinks heavily." Former Democratic leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) has "a tendency to resort to flatulent indignation." And Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S. C.) is "a true demagogue" and "a study in arrogance and pomposity."

Tower also offers startling disclosures. He says, for example, that Reagan told the Tower review board that he had authorized the shipment of U. S. arms to Iran, but later, Reagan recanted: "He picked up a sheet of paper and . . . said to the board, `This is what I am supposed to say,' and proceeded to read us an answer prepared by Peter Wallison, the White House counsel."

Over his 30-year political career, Tower cultivated a reputation as a character. With his slicked-back hair, European-cut suits, and omnipresent silver cigarette case, he came across as a Texas dandy. At the same time, both his voice and the things he said had a kind of syrupy eloquence. And while his reminiscences are sometimes disjointed, they're enjoyable because that quality is transferred to the page. Tower could always turn a phrase--"My name is Tower, but I don't," is the way he dealt with constant jokes about his 5-foot, 5-inch height--and he turns several here. The press "is either at your heels or at your throat." About allegations that he chased a secretary around his desk: "I would have had to be a high hurdler to chase anybody around the desk, since it was L-shaped and linked to a wall credenza."

Tower concedes that he drank too much in the early 1970s and that his two marriages were stormy. He also recognizes that he has made many enemies. But looking back, he says: "I could find no act so despicable that I deserved to be burned at the stake." He contends that his embittered second wife provided much of the information that doomed his nomination and that Nunn knew it had no substance.

Tower builds a strong case that the FBI never substantiated any serious charge against him--including accusations that he was too cozy with defense contractors. Rather, he was done in by "Washington's all-weather missile: ethics." In a court of law, he notes, uncorroborated and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed. But when it comes to appointments requiring Senate confirmation, such charges are fodder for FBI probes and media feeding frenzies. As a result, "many highly competent people, with some embarrassing but not disqualifying blemishes in their background, may be deterred from accepting" such appointments.

Ultimately, these funny, biting memoirs are tinged with pathos, for they reveal a man with broad knowledge and experience, whose habits, unacceptable in today's moralistic and unforgiving political atmosphere, made him a prime target for one of Washington's oldest rituals. Every once in a while, the town turns on one of its own and pecks that person to death. This time it was Tower who was left lying in the dirt.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.