Tower Pledges to Forgo Drinking : Would Abstain if Senate Confirms Him as Defense Secretary, He Says

Times Staff Writer

Former Texas Sen. John Tower sought to salvage his nomination as secretary of defense Sunday by pledging to forgo all consumption of alcohol during his tenure at the Pentagon if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Tower said he "would be obliged to resign" if he should take a drink while holding the sensitive Cabinet post.

"The secretary of defense lives in a goldfish bowl," he told reporters after making his pledge on a television interview show. "If anyone wants to put a tail on me, they can."

During his television appearance, Tower also defended himself against allegations of womanizing, saying: "I'm a single man. I do date women."

The pledge to forswear alcohol came less than two hours after Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) threatened to reopen the panel's investigation by subpoenaing confidential FBI witnesses for a "full public airing" of the allegations against Tower.

Leaks From FBI Report

Nunn raised the possibility of public hearings based on the now-confidential FBI report in response to what he called a "grossly unfair" effort by the White House to discredit Tower's critics through "selective" leaks from the report. The report, running several hundred pages, deals with allegations about Tower's drinking, womanizing and financial dealings with defense contractors after he left the Senate.

Coming just three days before the full Senate is to begin debate on Tower's confirmation, the exchange of promises and threats represented further escalation in what is fast becoming a showdown between Senate Democrats and President Bush. The confrontation was set up Thursday when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted down the nomination, 11 to 9, splitting along party lines.

Although Bush's other Cabinet selections have won Senate approval with little or no controversy--as presidential staff choices normally do--the Tower nomination was met with an almost unprecedented torrent of allegations about his personal conduct. Nunn and other Democrats on the Armed Services Committee said evidence in the FBI report convinced them that Tower was unfit to preside over the nation's defense Establishment.

Supporters, led by the President, have dismissed the allegations as unsubstantiated gossip and argued that Tower--a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee--is highly qualified to be secretary of defense.

Tower, appearing on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," staunchly defended his qualifications. On the matter of his relationships with defense contractors, he said his income of $750,000 for consulting work over two years was a gross figure that did not include his overhead for a professional staff.

He said he only provided clients with an evaluation of information in the public domain, "and it's considered that I had enlightened judgment on such matters."

Tower said he would be giving up income "to come back . . . and perform a public service."

When asked about allegations of womanizing, Tower, who has been divorced twice, challenged the show's panelists to define the term.

He did not get a definitive response, but ABC's Cokie Roberts replied: "I think most women . . . know it when they see it, senator."

There were no signs Sunday that Tower's extraordinary appearance had brought any new declarations of support. Several undecided Democratic lawmakers, whose votes are considered critical in the confirmation fight, reacted cautiously, saying they would have to read the FBI reports before making up their minds.

Access to Files Awaited

Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), one of a dozen undecided Democrats whose votes the White House hopes to win in a three-day lobbying blitz, said he would remain undecided at least until today, when he and 79 other senators will get access to the FBI files for the first time.

"I don't know that's the only thing of concern," Sanford said of allegations of Tower's drinking. "I listened (to Tower) with a good deal of interest, but I want to look at the full FBI reports since I had no way to get the facts."

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) called the pledge "another factor" in the Senate's deliberations but declined to predict whether it would decisively alter Tower's confirmation prospects.

But Mitchell's Republican counterpart, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), said Tower's pledge should make the confirmation battle "a new ballgame." Dole said he hopes that Tower's promise would even cause some of the 11 Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee to "take another look."

Talks on Vote Scheduled

Mitchell and Dole, in an impromptu airport meeting in Washington, agreed to hold discussions today on the timing and circumstances of the Tower vote. Mitchell has said he would bring the confirmation vote to the Senate floor Wednesday, leading to a vote as early as Thursday.

In Tower's appearance on ABC, his first interview since his Dec. 16 nomination to the top defense post, he insisted that he has "never been an alcoholic nor dependent on alcohol." The former Texas senator also made public a medical assessment of his condition by a physician who treated him earlier this year for a colon polyp.

In an open letter dated Feb. 25, Dr. Warren E. Lichliter wrote that Tower's pre-operative tests showed no sign of liver damage and that during his recovery from surgery, Tower "exhibited no evidence of alcohol withdrawal." Lichliter is a specialist in colon and rectal diseases at Baylor University Medical Center, where Tower was treated earlier this year.

"On the contrary, he was at work continuously, almost from the time he left the recovery room," Lichliter wrote. "Based on these facts, it can be stated with relative certainty that Sen. Tower shows no evidence at all of alcoholic impairment or alcoholism."

Independent Check Rejected

In releasing Lichliter's letter, Tower testily rejected a proposal by Nunn that would have provided an independent doctors' analysis of his medical condition, including whether alcoholism was present.

"Would it be a psychiatric examination or something like that?" Tower asked. "No, I'm not going to submit to that, and why should I? . . . I think that you take my doctors' word on the basis of their professional competence."

Nunn, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," had said that White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, in a Feb. 10 meeting, "rejected, thumbs down" Nunn's proposal to have independent doctors consult with Tower and his doctors, examine the FBI report and "give the committee, in a discreet and confidential way, their evaluation."

Tower said on the ABC show that more than a month ago he offered the Senate panel the opportunity to choose independent doctors to "interrogate my doctors." Nunn responded that "he might do that," Tower said.

When asked whether his no-drinking pledge was an admission of alcoholism, Tower protested that it is instead a demonstration that he is not addicted to alcohol.

'Small Thing to Do'

"Why not make (the pledge)?" Tower asked. "It's a small thing to do to allay doubts and fears.

"This is an extra step that is really not terribly significant as far as I'm concerned. . . . It is not an admission."

The White House and Tower's Republican backers on Capitol Hill are eager to release an unclassified version of the extensive FBI report in an effort to show that the most damaging allegations against him remain unsubstantiated or have been discredited.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Nunn said such a move could compromise the identity of sources who gave confidential testimony to the FBI and hurt the agency's ability to conduct future investigations.

But Nunn said Sunday that, if the White House continues to leak material collected by the FBI selectively, then "we would have no alternative but to open the hearings and go back and subpoena some people and have a full public airing of this.

"That would be unfortunate. It would not be the way to proceed, but the White House may force us into that."

Republican leaders, however, seized Nunn's opening.

'Corrupted and Hijacked'

"The reopening of the hearing and the swearing of witnesses would be something very much in Tower's favor," Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said. "This confirmation process has been thoroughly corrupted and hijacked, and it could be the best thing in the world to reopen and to cross-examine people under oath. I think that the witness list would shrink."

Dole told reporters that he would favor reopening the hearings if they included a "balanced" witness list.

"It's important enough that we should do what we need to do, whatever it is," Dole said.

Staff writers William J. Eaton, Sara Fritz, Paul Houston and Robin Wright contributed to this story.

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