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Underachiever

Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir

by John G. Tower
Little, Brown, 388 pp., $22.95

John Tower’s life and career, like his recent death, seem more than most lives and careers to have depended on accident. Certainly his claim to historical importance rests mainly on a series of unusual episodes, rather than on the sustained accomplishment that might be expected of a four-term United States senator. He was, of course, the first cabinet nominee of an incoming president to be rejected by the Senate: this is largely what we now most remember him for, and it is at the center of his recent autobiography. As chairman of the Tower Commission, which investigated the Iran-contra scandal, he helped to make George Bush’s presidency possible by producing a report that insisted with an overall air of authority on Bush’s blamelessness. Moreover, though it is not widely recognized, Tower was instrumental in formulating the enormous defense-budget increases of the first Reagan administration, which set the tone and the programs for the 1980s in foreign policy, domestic economics, and political debate. Finally, Tower was the first Republican US senator since Reconstruction elected from a former Confederate state.

Tower became a senator by a series of unlikely events. In 1960 Lyndon Johnson had himself put on the ballot in Texas as a candidate for both the vice-presidency and the Senate. When the national ticket won, a special election was held to fill his Senate seat. Seventy-one candidates registered; Tower, who had been the official Republican nominee in the 1960 election and had lost to Johnson, finished first in the primary, but he was expected to lose the runoff to Bill Blakley, the conservative candidate of the Democratic establishment. The liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party, whose younger members at the time included Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, and Ann Richards, made a characteristically high-minded decision to desert their party and support Tower, on the reasoning that Tower would be easy to defeat six years later, when the “right,” that is, more liberal Democratic nominee for the Senate would be found; meanwhile it was gratifying to teach Bill Blakley’s backers a thing or two.

The liberals’ position was not entirely perverse: it would have been difficult not to underestimate Tower as a candidate then. He was an assistant professor of political science at Midwestern State University, an obscure school in Wichita Falls, a small north Texas city that Texans make fun of for being dull and provincial. Short, plum-faced, Tower did not even have the look of a politician, especially a Texas politician in the heyday of such imposing figures as Johnson and John Connally. In World War II he had tried to become a Navy pilot and failed, and had wound up as (in his words) a “deck ape” rather than a war hero. After graduating from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Tower had spent a year at the London School of Economics, and there had acquired a slightly incongruous British manner. As an assistant professor at Midwestern State in the late 1950s he had become involved in Texas’s tiny Republican party; he wrote the party’s newsletter, and ran the platform committee at its 1958 state convention.

He was only thirty-four in the spring of 1960, when he was chosen for the sacrificial position of Republican nominee for the Senate; Johnson, then the Senate Majority Leader, was thought unlikely to become Kennedy’s running mate, and was certain to be re-elected.

Tower was obviously extremely intelligent, and more obviously aware of his intellectual superiority than is prudent for a politician—especially one who comes from a background that would have been more suited to a populist. Blakley, on the other hand, was a millionaire businessman who had turned to politics so late in life that voters could be certain that the public sector had not corrupted his character. Tower won by a tiny margin, 10,000 votes out of nearly 900,000 cast. In 1966 his opponent was another conservative Democrat, the liberals again sat out the election, and he was re-elected by 200,000 votes. It wasn’t until 1972 that Tower faced a united Democratic opposition, and by that time he was well-entrenched in Washington.

These circumstances obviously contributed to his success as a politician, but his election was also part of a larger trend, the establishment of a Republican political base in the South and Southwest (and therefore of what President Johnson’s former aide Horace Busby calls the “Republican electoral lock” in presidential elections). The standard explanation of the new Republican majority there is that the South goes with the party of resistance to racial reform, and in the Sixties, when the Democrats became identified nationally with civil rights, the South forgave the Republicans for Reconstruction and abandoned the Democratic party. But while Tower himself voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his popularity, and that of other Sunbelt conservatives, has a different, and somewhat more complicated, explanation.

The politics of the stretch of America between Houston and Los Angeles does not depend upon race to nearly the same extent as the politics of the South, or even of the urban Northeast and Midwest. The central historical event of the Southwest is not the Civil War, but the long struggle between the United States and Mexico over its ownership. In Texas William Barrett Travis’s bellicose letter from the Alamo (“never surrender…”) in 1836 is more frequently invoked than the Declaration of Independence. Tower quotes from it twice in his memoirs, and boasts that he can recite it from memory. The tendency to believe that standing tall and firm (as opposed to, say, negotiating) is the best answer to most problems leads to the kind of political views that we now call conservatism: that is, a position strongly favoring the economic marketplace and a big defense establishment, and profoundly suspicious of the welfare state.

Tower, born in 1927, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, grew up in Douglassville, a sleepy east Texas small town (his election to the Senate allowed him to move from Wichita Falls to Dallas). He was part of the postwar generation that left rural Texas and gravitated to the cities, to the state’s growing big-business culture (oil, banking, real estate, defense contracting, electronics), and, in many cases including Tower’s own, to Scotch and divorce. Outsiders often miss the importance in the South and Southwest of the tension between worldly sophistication and small-town roots. It may be significant that the opposition to Tower’s becoming defense secretary that really mattered came from the small-town Southern culture from which he emerged: Sam Nunn is from Perry, Georgia; Paul Weyrich of the Coalition for America, who was the first witness against Tower before the Armed Services Committee, speaks for a Moral Majority-style, largely Southern constituency; and, Tower reports, the only senators who got much voter mail opposing him were from the Bible Belt.

When Tower was first elected to the Senate, he was known vaguely as a Texas “right winger,” a phrase that was then understood to mean overthrowing Castro and objecting to Medicare. There was some hope in the conservative movement that he would replace Barry Goldwater as its leader. From what we know now about Tower, it is clear that this was never a real possibility, because Tower was not drawn to the purist, outsider nature of Goldwater conservatism, especially after the anti-abortion movement became a powerful force within conservatism in the 1970s. Tower, in fact, consistently refused to condemn abortion, and over time he became more sympathetic to the Washington Republican establishment than a true movement politician ever would. In 1976 he endorsed Gerald Ford rather than Ronald Reagan for president—that is, the incumbent, a Washington insider, and a moderate, against the rebellious, conservative Reagan, who was extremely popular in Texas. Reagan easily won the Texas primary, and his allies then humiliated Tower by refusing to permit him to be a delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention. Griffin Smith, Jr., in a profile of Tower in Texas Monthly in 1977, described his slow coming to terms with the political mainstream in this way:

Tower arrived in Washington determined to enjoy to the hilt what he fully expected would be his one and only term. He relished the newfound celebrity status, traipsed around the country giving speeches at the expense of Senate attendance, freely lent his name to conservative organizations’ letterheads…. His indifference to serious Senate business drove his staff to despair and he repeatedly made mistakes of judgment that a more seasoned politician would have avoided. He acquired the playboy image that has followed him ever since. Many of his colleagues privately dismissed him as a clown.

That phase lasted until 1968, when the reality of his surprise reelection finally sank in. He decided that championing right-wing causes was a dead end, at least for the kind of Senate life he would prefer if he was actually going to be a senator instead of just play at being one.

At first he was on the Labor and Education Committee at the height of the Great Society, which constantly put him in a negative position. As Tower observes. “Successful political careers are not built around naysaying, and if I had stayed on the committee, most of my energy would have gone into opposing rather than proposing.” When he persuaded the Senate Republican leadership to let him switch committees, from labor to armed services, Tower writes, “I found my niche and myself,” because he could provide, rather than deny, the government’s largesse. While he didn’t believe in the conservatives’ social views on religion, culture, and the family, of which opposition to abortion is by far the most important, he did believe whole-heartedly in the conservatives’ position on defense. Since Texas had many defense contractors and military bases, there was a good fit between Tower’s own politics and the politics of deliver-for-the-home-folks.

Life on the Armed Services Committee, particularly in the 1970s, was a never-ending battle between Republicans favoring the military and liberal Democrats trying to scale down the Pentagon’s budget in the wake of the Vietnam War. The Democratic chairman of the committee, Scoop Jackson, was strongly for defense and a close comrade of Tower’s, but some of the younger Democrats (like Gary Hart and Carl Levin), along with many members of the House Armed Services Committee and the House and Senate Budget Committees, were not. Occasionally during the 1970s there were full-scale debates on defense issues—for example, on the two SALT treaties, both of which Tower opposed—but for the most part liberals and conservatives concerned with defense spent their time maneuvering over technical issues. The Democrats would try to slow the rate of production of a big weapons system to save money. The Republicans would counter by trying to reduce troop levels rather than equipment. There was, as Tower puts it, “endless haggling and bickering” over the defense portion of the big appropriations bills and budget resolutions.

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