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 …

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