WORLD

Capitol showdown

A Senate committee deals Bush a setback

MARY NEMETH March 6 1989
WORLD

Capitol showdown

A Senate committee deals Bush a setback

MARY NEMETH March 6 1989

Capitol showdown

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

A Senate committee deals Bush a setback

There were rumors of pretty women, too much liquor and too-intimate ties to the defence industry. They circulated even before George Bush last December nominated former senator John Tower, his longtime political ally, to be secretary of defence. And while Bush insisted that he was satisfied with Tower’s personal and professional qualifications, members of the Senate armed services committee which reviewed his candidacy said that they were not—and delayed their final vote for 10 weeks of detailed examination. Last week, following party lines, the committee voted to reject Tower, and members asked the full Senate to do the same when it considers the nomination this week. With that, the Democrat-dominated committee dealt the first major blow to the young Bush presidency, ending its honeymoon with Congress. After all 11 Democrats on the committee voted against Tower and all nine Republicans in favor, a solemn Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona

declared that the early Bush-era spirit of bipartisanship had just been “impaired dramatically.”

The vote marked the first time in 44 years that a Senate committee had rejected a president’s choice for his cabinet—and Bush, in Tokyo for Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, stood firmly by his nominee. “It’s not a personal win or lose,” said the President. “It’s what’s right, who is best to run the defence department. And I’m going to win this battle.” But the Democrats hold a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate, which could prove critical in the vote expected this week. And at week’s end, sources close to Tower said that he was considering withdrawing his name in order to save Bush from a bitter floor fight—and another potentially embarrassing setback.

Although not close personal friends, Bush and Tower have longtime ties. In 1966, Tower—elected to the Senate from Texas five years earlier—supported Bush in his success-

ful run for the House of Representatives. In 1980, when most prominent Republicans joined Ronald Reagan’s camp, Tower stood behind Bush. And during last year’s elections, Bush advisers said that Tower proved an invaluable campaigner: he spent much of the race chaperoning Dan Quayle, the controversyprone vice-presidential candidate.

But when Bush nominated him for secretary of defence, the armed services committee delayed its vote while the FBI investigated Tower. According to unsubstantiated rumors, the diminutive, slick-haired Texan had a drinking problem, had conducted indiscreet romantic affairs with women—including a Russian ballerina—and had even chased his secretaries around their desks. Tower denied having a current drinking problem, insisting that he was “a man of some discipline.” The FBI also investigated the $885,000 that Tower earned as a consultant to the defence industry after he had served as a U.S. negotiator in arms control talks in Geneva. Tower again denied any wrongdoing, but critics questioned whether his ties to industry would pose conflicts of interest if he were in charge of the Pentagon’s $350billion budget.

The FBI’s final 140-page report—made available to the White House and senators last Monday—referred to his self-acknowledged drinking problem in the 1970s when he was going through a divorce, media reports said. It also contained allegations that Tower had been seen drunk in public as recently as last August;

but they were not corroborated by other sources and, in some cases, they were contradicted. Bush insisted that the report exonerated his candidate. But even Senator McCain, who voted to confirm Tower, said that there is “a veritable blizzard of allegations, and I will admit that some of these allegations are open to interpretation.”

Ultimately, the Democratic senators apparently decided that there was enough information to reject Tower’s candidacy. Explained Alan J. Dixon, a Democratic senator from Illinois: “I agree with some who say there may not be a smoking gun but there is an abundance of smoke.”

Still, Tower’s rejection may have been influenced by factors other than his qualifications. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the widely respected armed services committee chairman, is, like Tower, considered a congressional expert on defence, and some Washington analysts contended that the confirmation process could have involved a battle for political power. Senate sources suggested that Conservative Democrats were wavering on their vote up to the last minute—and that it was Nunn who pulled them into line. With Tower’s alleged drinking problem, Nunn said after the vote, the nominee could not qualify to command a missile wing or a bomber squadron—and so “I cannot in good conscience” vote to put him in charge of the Pentagon.

For the record, Tower himself would only say that he was “obviously disappointed.”

Bush, meanwhile, telephoned Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole from Japan to ask him to try to ensure that Republican senators continued to support Tower. According to senior administration officials, Bush said that he would not press Tower to withdraw his name. But while the President has steadfastly refused to suggest alternatives to Tower as secretary of defence, administration sources had begun to provide some names. Most prominent: Norman Augustine, the chief executive officer of defence contractor Martin Marietta Corp., and former president Gerald Ford’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

If the Tower confirmation is voted on by the full Senate, the fight could be decidedly fierce. Before the committee vote, Dole said that Democratic senators would risk “tearing this place up” if they used their majority power to kill Tower’s nomination. And he charged that there were members in the Senate who had blemished personal backgrounds. “There could be some hypocrisy around here,” he said. Added Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska: “I’ve known senators who had drinking problems. We’ve even known senators to drink during working hours.” On that combative note, the Republicans prepared for a final stand—plainly hoping that, for Bush, the affair would not prove to be a sign of towering troubles ahead.

MARY NEMETH

WILLIAM LOWTHER

in Washington