John G. Tower
John G. Tower; drawing by David Levine

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.

Tower, an extremely stubborn man who tended to stick to his position until the other side had been ground down, began to gain the respect of his fellow senators, ironically just as his experience on armed services was causing him to lose respect for them. He began to see his work in the Senate as a constant struggle against hypocritical liberals who try to cut the defense budget and “micro-manage” weapons programs, but will fight to increase military spending in their own districts. This perception of liberals is certainly true as far as it goes, but Tower tended to see it as key to the problems of national defense, saying, for example, in his book that “Congressionally mandated waste is far in excess of anything that has occurred through Pentagon mismanagement.”

Back home, Tower says, “I had finally become the candidate of the Texas political establishment,” but he was feeling more and more that elective politics, which got him there, was inherently degrading. Tower tells us in Consequences that he and James Baker were having a drink in the bar at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio after a day spent on the hustings in Baker’s sole, and unsuccessful, try for elective office, in the 1978 Texas attorney general’s race. The Menger is a fine old hotel, though faded; as Tower tells the story, the sense of his wanting us to know that he was truly in his element is impossible to miss. “As we slumped in our chairs and a couple of tall, cool drinks were put on the table in front of us,” Tower writes, “I said, ‘Jim, this is a squalid business!’ ” After his defeat, Baker pursued much more successfully a career in the less squalid business of cabinet ministership. For Tower the job of secretary of defense—an executive position, which involved dealing with like-minded people—began to look much more attractive than a Senate seat.

I interviewed Tower once, in 1984, when I was working on a profile of Caspar Weinberger for The Atlantic. We met at the Headliners Club in Austin, which belongs to an archipelago of business leaders’ clubs in Texas, all located on the top floors of mirrored-glass downtown skyscrapers. It was an appropriate setting because taken together these clubs were a fair approximation of Tower Country, populated mainly by people who had risen from lower-middle to upper-middle-class (and even rich), during the years of the Sunbelt boom, and who thought of themselves as tough, practical, and sophisticated (Sea Island, Georgia, the place Tower was headed when his plane crashed, once inhabited by the old rich, is now a new-rich Southern resort).

I was ushered into a large private dining room by an aide, and Tower peeled himself away from a convivial group of a dozen well-dressed people and motioned me over to a pair of armchairs. My feeling on seeing him was that finally I had met a senator who seemed like a member of a different species. He wore his customary pin-striped bespoke suit and a signet ring. His dark brown hair was razor parted and slicked down. He drew an English cigarette from a slim gold case and held a cocktail glass in his other hand.

After the 1980 presidential election Tower had supposedly tried to get the defense secretaryship, but Ronald Reagan had told him he’d be of more use as chairman of armed services in the newly Republican Senate. There was talk that Tower had played a substantial role in formulating the Reagan administration’s initial $32.6 billion increase in the defense budget. When I asked him about this, he gave me to understand that it was true—both Weinberger and David Stockman had met with him just a few hours before the meeting at which they drew up the budget increase, and a member of Tower’s famous network of aides, Rhett Dawson, had then been dispatched to the Pentagon bearing a draft budget whose figures were extremely close to the ones Weinberger and Stockman had settled upon. “Cap Weinberger was not well-versed in defense issues, and fortunately he was willing to listen to people who were,” Tower said with a small, sly smile.

At the time we talked, the liberal think tanks and the press were preoccupied with the federal deficit, but Tower had no patience with their argument that it was now time to cut defense spending. “Defense is mandated by the Constitution,” was his lecture to me. “Other spending is not. Social Security’s not in the Constitution. Higher Education’s not. Arts, humanities. Defense isn’t creating the deficit. Defense is the primary and sole responsibility of national government. These other things are not. Cut things the government’s not mandated to do.”

The time when we spoke was, in retrospect, the high-water mark of American conservatism, but like many other conservatives Tower saw that cause as lonely and perilous, because to his mind the most powerful people in the country were liberals. In particular Tower had the press in mind, and he gave me a long disquisition, matter-of-fact rather than angry in tone, on the subject:

I think there’s a fundamental anti-defense bias among the elite of the media. Print and electronic. Having come from a classroom, I remember my colleagues were not oriented toward defense. It was not fashionable to be a conservative. There’s the same attitude in academics and the media, even though some journalists make a million a year. If you took a poll and asked, Would you like to be as strong as Russia, people would overwhelmingly say yes. The media undermined public support of defense, largely by adversarial journalism, picking apart this weapons system or that. You never see a system on the front page when it’s on schedule. When they renegotiate at a lower cost, you don’t read about it. It’s terribly irresponsible. The media are sacrosanct. They have no restraint. They’re free to be irresponsible, unlike the rest of us. We have to be accountable. Who’s won a Pulitzer Prize for saying something good about a politician or a weapon?

In his book Tower says that the moment he decided to retire from the Senate (which he did after the 1984 election) came during a speech by Charles Grassley, of Iowa, in which Grassley put forth the theory that the lesson of Pearl Harbor is that having a strong industrial base is more important to national security than military preparedness—that cutting the defense budget therefore wouldn’t make the country more vulnerable. “He was playing to his favorite audience—the news media,” Tower notes disgustedly. “…Grassley was looking for a headline. The time had come to leave the United States Senate.”

With Reagan Tower had unsteady personal ties but affinity on defense issues. With George Bush he had a long, mutually loyal relationship dating back to the early 1960s in Texas politics, but, it appears, different positions on defense. It may suggest what really matters in politics that Bush, and not Reagan, nominated Tower to the job he’d always wanted. But plainly what Tower saw as the main obstacle between himself and the E Ring of the Pentagon, in late 1988 and early 1989, was his not undeserved reputation as an unrestrained defense spender. Bush originally had in mind a slow-growth or no-growth defense budget; Tower set out to reassure him, and the Congress, that he was nonetheless the man to run the Pentagon. He writes that in his first meeting with Bush after the presidential election he told him, “John Tower was not planning to be a big spender, pushing reflexively for every major weapon system that came along.” He struck the same note in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing, and made a point of distancing himself from the Strategic Defense Initiative.

When Paul Weyrich, one of the key figures in the now moribund New Right movement, appeared before the Armed Services Committee, on January 31, 1989, to express “serious reservations about his moral character,” Tower was surprised. He had anticipated opposition, but from his obvious enemies, liberals and the press; now it became apparent that his true vulnerability lay in the fuzzy issue of his “character,” on which he hadn’t expected to be attacked and wasn’t prepared. In retrospect, Tower thought Weyrich had opposed him because he was lukewarm on SDI, and, more likely, because of his position on abortion. It’s also possible, though, that Weyrich, Nunn, and others were sincerely troubled by Tower’s way of life, especially when they began to imagine him not as a Senate colleague but in the awesome position of military commander. Tower couldn’t imagine anyone’s really objecting to his having been one of the regulars at a Capitol Hill bar called the Monocle, for example, or having been a hard drinker years ago, but apparently some people did object.

Consequences does a good job of recreating Tower’s experience of being scrutinized for weeks on end while he was accused never quite specifically about his “character” and his recreational activities. But one must ask whether Tower could have changed the course of events after Weyrich testified against him, and the answer is probably not. The truth was that his colleagues in the Senate, respect his intelligence and his knowledge though they did, thought he was arrogant, imperious, not a regular guy. They didn’t like him enough, collectively, to go to the trouble to help him when his nomination ran into trouble.

Once it became clear that the Senate was not going to protect him at any cost, Tower’s nomination was “in play,” and he had to participate in the process by which the country, via the press, decides whether it really likes you or not. The people who survive this scrutiny are apt to project a quality of innocence, or even naiveté, and this Tower completely lacked. He thought of himself as smart, tough, gutsy, realistic, and free of the low little hypocrisies that most people have; not for him any of the public emotional apologias that other politicians use to get themselves out of trouble. Only too late, for example, did he promise to stop drinking if confirmed, and after having squandered weeks denying that he drank hard liquor at all. The pose he struck in response to the charges made against him (at the time, and again in his book) was one of defiance: everything being said was 100 percent untrue. Colonel Travis wouldn’t make a truce with the Mexican army, either, and he wound up dead.

To say that Tower was free of the false piety common in politicians shouldn’t be taken to mean that he was also unpretentious. (This is a man who used to say to his staff, at tough moments, “Once more unto the breach!”) He pretended to qualities other than moral superiority, such as gallantry, urbanity, and sophistication; all these probably contributed to the unrequited nature of the love affair between him and the Senate, the press, and the American public. Another of his public relations problems was that his work after he left the Senate, as a “defense consultant,” was one of those Washington livelihoods that is impossible to explain satisfactorily to outsiders. He was providing his clients, he writes, with “information gathering, analysis, and advice,” but he also insists that everything he told them about at least one subject, strategic arms, was “already in the public domain.” What were they paying him for, then? It suggests the hopelessness of his fight to compare the square-jawed, down-to-earth bureaucrat Dick Cheney, a man nursing no wounds that we know about, to Tower, with his cosmetic surgery, his upper-class British manners, and his unusual personal circle consisting, at the time of his confirmation hearings, of one devoted ex-wife, one vengeful ex-wife, a film noir–style glamorous lady friend, and three adoring, adorable daughters.

Tower’s book provides a vivid sense of what he was like, though the portrait that emerges probably differs somewhat from what was intended. While he insists that he wasn’t angry or hurt about the confirmation experience, he keeps returning, obsessively and bitterly, to that experience, to the point that we get only fragments of information about the rest of his life and his thinking. The fateful roll-call vote begins the book, and it is invoked throughout. One gets the sense of a man whose victories were hard-fought and narrow ones, and whose losses were frequent and had an emotionally devastating effect. While he presents himself as a scholarly, detached political scientist whom the flow of life has carried into the company of people utterly different from himself, he comes across as a deeply emotional man, a tenacious fighter, and an intuitive politician. Indeed every analytic passage in Consequences lies dead on the page:

The foreign policy process involves an aggregate of separate bilateral and multilateral relationships that interlock into a comprehensive scheme designed to promote the long-term national interests.

But when Tower is sizing up an opponent and the immediate realities of his situation, the light turns on:

When I reviewed the videotape of Meet the Press, I could see a flicker of fear in Nunn’s eyes as he told Andrea Mitchell that he was in “a hopeful situation” and that the White House was “grossly unfair” to leak portions of the FBI report that exonerated me from charges of misconduct…. Nunn wanted to play rough but the idea that his opponents would actually hit back appeared to offend and frighten him.

It can only be guessed at now what Tower might have achieved as defense secretary. In Consequences he is opaque on the subject, saying only that he was planning a “comprehensive review” of “how current trends and uncertainties affect the appropriateness and effectiveness of our national defense strategy for the 1990s.” He promises, as every incoming defense secretary does, to reform procurement and Pentagon management. After the years spent on the Armed Services Committee, Tower’s ideas were steeped in the Soviet threat, the military-industrial complex, and a mistrust of liberals. He was prepared to cut the military budget, partly because he saw that signaling a willingness to do so had been a precondition of his getting the job, but these cuts were likely to be done in such a way as to keep his weapons-system production lines rolling. Here is one of the few clues he provides about what he would have done:

I saw that the military would be able to absorb a reasonable reduction in spending by cutting manpower, transferring some active-duty units to the reserves, and scaling back our presence in the Persian Gulf region.

His plans would have been upset by recent events in the Middle East as well as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But as someone who came of age intellectually at the height of the cold war, and who had spent much of his time over the years with generals and defense contractors, Tower was predisposed to view strategic deterrence of the Soviets as the center of American defense policy. One of his few detailed public comments after his nomination was defeated was an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that appeared in October 1990—that is, during the troop buildup in Saudi Arabia. In it he pleaded that the funding for the Stealth bomber not be cut, and the reason he gave was its deterrent value against the Warsaw Pact, not its potential utility in the Gulf.

Maybe, under the pressure of events, Tower would have been the one to help formulate the New World Order—but it’s difficult to picture him actually being secretary of defense. He was a man to whom fighting for something that he was never quite going to get was more in character. Since running the Pentagon was what he most wanted, it seems in retrospect exactly what he was destined never to do.

This Issue

June 27, 1991