WORLD

A SETBACK FOR BUSH

AFTER THE SENATE REJECTED TOWER, THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION FOUGHT IMPRESSIONS OF WEAKNESS

JOHN BIERMAN March 20 1989
WORLD

A SETBACK FOR BUSH

AFTER THE SENATE REJECTED TOWER, THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION FOUGHT IMPRESSIONS OF WEAKNESS

JOHN BIERMAN March 20 1989

A SETBACK FOR BUSH

WORLD

AFTER THE SENATE REJECTED TOWER, THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION FOUGHT IMPRESSIONS OF WEAKNESS

The atmosphere in the U.S. Senate last Thursday was almost funereal. President George Bush's choice of John Tower to be defence secretary had been rejected 53 to 47 by Tower’s former Senate colleagues—only the ninth time in history that the chamber had refused to confirm a major cabinet nominee. But although the Senate Democrats—minus three defectors—had won the day, they were not celebrating. Clearly worried that public opinion might react angrily against their humiliation of a well-liked president during his traditional “honeymoon” period, majority leader George Mitchell sought to soften the blow. “This vote is not and should not be taken as a vote to harm the President,” he said. But Senate Republicans clearly thought otherwise. Said California Senator Pete Wilson: “This was [the Democrats’] first response to the President’s outstretched hand. What they did was bite it off. A lot of people are going to remember this for a long time.”

Certainly, it was a heavy setback for Bush. Never before had a president so early in his first term had a cabinet choice rejected. But with the bruising nomination battle lost only 49 days into his presidency, Bush moved to put it behind him as quickly as possible. He disagreed with the Senate’s verdict, he said, but “respected its role.” Added Bush: “Now, we owe it to the American people to come together and move forward.” And move forward he did, naming a new candidate for the defence post within 24 hours. To the surprise of most Washington observers, his choice was a man few of them had considered as a candidate for the job: Representative Richard Cheney, a conservative Republican from Wyoming who was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff in 1975 and 1976.

For the diminutive, 63-year-old Tower, who retired from the Senate in 1985 after representing Texas for 24 years, the nomination battle had been, as Bush said, “a cruel ordeal.” Tower, dapperly dressed in one of his trademark Savile Row suits, watched the climax of that ordeal—the Senate floor vote—on television and then left his temporary office in the Pentagon to make a brief statement. “I depart from this place at peace with myself,” he said. “No public figure in my memory has had his human foibles bared to such intensive and demeaning public scrutiny.”

Indeed, in the media, on the Senate floor and in confirmation hearings before the Senate armed services committee—which he himself had once chaired—Tower’s drinking habits, his sexual peccadillos and his alleged conflicts of interest had been remorselessly scrutinized. An FBI report—which his supporters condemned as hearsay and innuendo—had focused on his fondness for alcohol and what it called his “womanizing.” But perhaps more damaging were allegations of conflict of interest when, in the two years after he served as an arms control negotiator, he earned almost $1 million as a consultant to defence contractors.

A key senator in blocking the Tower nomination was conservative Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia, the widely respected armed services committee chairman. “There will be no backslapping. There will be profound sorrow,” said Nunn after the floor vote. But Vice-President Dan Quayle was clearly in no mood to be mollified. In apparent contradiction of Bush’s stated desire to put the episode behind him, Quayle accused Senate Democrats in a speech last Friday of “McCarthyite mudslinging.” That reference to the 1950s-era senator Joseph McCarthy, who became notorious for his witch-hunting smear tactics, seemed calculated to keep partisan passions on the boil.

Meanwhile, problems continued to pile up inside the leaderless Pentagon. In the defence department, 36 key positions are filled by holdovers from the Reagan administration, and eight remain vacant. And decisions are urgently needed on a number of projects and policies that remain on hold. Awaiting action is a plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal within the limits of a Pentagon annual budget frozen at $365 billion, without jeopardizing hopes for a mutual U.S.-Soviet 50-per-cent reduction in long-range nuclear weapons. Other decisions pending: scaling back spending on the Strategic Defence Initiative to close to the $4.8 billion approved by Congress last year from the currently allocated $7 billion; the future of the B-2 “Stealth” bomber; whether to cut to three from five the number of new guided missile destroyers scheduled to be built next year; and cutting back on the seven army divisions. As well, remedial action must be taken on the Pentagon’s controversial weapons-buying system, which has led to widespread waste and outright fraud.

Dealing with those and similar items will now become the task of Cheney, whose nomination was considered likely to receive speedy Senate approval in the aftermath of the Tower fiasco. Cheney, 48, is known to his congressional colleagues as a tough-minded legislator whose conservatism is pragmatic rather than ideological. A family man with no known vices, he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 and has risen rapidly in the Republican hierarchy.

Despite Bush’s swift action in naming a replacement for Tower, senior White House advisers expressed concern privately about the long-term implications of the confirmation debacle. Although they do not anticipate any serious challenge to the Cheney nomination, Bush advisers apparently fear that—emboldened by their success in blocking Tower—the Democrats might make a point of challenging Bush all along the line. A more immediate concern was the fact that, seven weeks after his inauguration, Bush was still lagging seriously in the fundamental task of getting his team in place.

But the President’s energy was not in question. Indeed, Bush has proved to be so active that the secret service has nicknamed him “the Mexican Jumping Bean.” At the same time, recent opinion polls show that he enjoys the approval of more than 60 per cent of the general public—considerably more than Reagan did at the same early stage in his presidency. And First Lady Barbara Bush has become equally popular and is on the way to becoming a well-loved national figure.

Still, David Gergen, director of communications in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983, said last week that Bush was standing “perilously on the edge of a cliff.” Added Gergen: “There is a deepening sense in Washington that something is badly amiss in his administration.” A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, varied the metaphor. “This administration is like a canoe standing still in a pond,” he said. “Every little ripple can knock you over.” At week’s end, it seemed beyond question that—however it was phrased—the Bush administration had revealed unexpected weaknesses surprisingly early.

JOHN BIERMAN with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

JOHN BIERMAN

WILLIAM LOWTHER