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Bush Fails to Win Support for Tower : Can’t Sway Democrats as GOP Tries to Discredit Defense Nominee’s Foes

Times Staff Writers

Lobbying by President Bush failed to persuade any Democrats to support the nomination of John Tower as defense secretary on Tuesday, and embittered Senate Republicans responded with a last-ditch attempt to portray the nominee as the innocent victim of character assassination by an unprincipled Democratic majority.

The GOP strategy clearly was intended to undermine the reputation and credibility of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Tower’s other Democratic opponents--a tack that was certain to leave lasting scars on Bush’s relationship with Congress.

Although Bush met separately at the White House with at least nine wavering Democratic senators, his aides readily acknowledged that none of the President’s visitors had pledged to support Tower. Without at least five Democratic votes, the nomination is doomed to defeat.

Party Solidarity

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On the Republican side of the aisle, however, GOP leaders were hopeful that the President’s call for party solidarity would allow them to reassert control among the 45 Republicans in the chamber, at least one of whom, Larry Pressler of South Dakota, already has called on Tower to withdraw.

Unless some Democrats can be swayed by the President, Republicans are threatening what Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) described as “a hell of a fight” on the Senate floor that could delay the final vote on Tower’s nomination until at least next week. Democrats were hoping to begin debate on the nomination today and vote by Thursday.

While the Republicans’ highly combative strategy was unlikely to win Tower any of the Democratic votes he needs to be confirmed as defense secretary, it clearly afforded them an opportunity to vent their anger and defend Tower’s reputation against allegations that he has frequently engaged in excessive drinking and womanizing.

Defended by Rudman

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“He has a right to be vindicated, even though he may not win on the floor of the U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), one of Tower’s most outspoken defenders.

Some Republicans even suggested that Tower’s accusers are as guilty of excessive drinking as the former GOP senator. Citing a long history of drunkenness in the Senate, Assistant Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) noted: “There’s a couple that still gallop around with a little bit of the grape and grain on their breath.”

And some Tower supporters took obvious pleasure in referring to a Wall Street Journal editorial about a 1964 automobile accident in which Nunn was involved. Nunn, who was 26 when the accident occurred, admitted in a statement Tuesday that at the time he had “had enough to drink so that both my driving and judgment were impaired.”

“He (Nunn) takes this stuff real personally,” said a Senate GOP aide gleefully. “He’s probably going bananas.”

Despite the intensity of the battle, the vast majority of Senate Democrats showed no sign of wavering after reading a voluminous, top-secret FBI report detailing many of the allegations against Tower.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a previously uncommitted Democrat who turned down an invitation to the White House and then announced his opposition to Tower, characterized the FBI report as very persuasive: “There are names, there are facts, there are absolute statements--the words ‘crocked,’ ‘bombed,’ ‘excessive drinking,’ ‘sloshing,’ ‘stoned,’ ‘comatose’ and the rest.”

In meetings with undecided senators as well as in numerous public statements, Bush and his Republican loyalists in the Senate stressed their contention that the FBI investigation had failed to substantiate any of these allegations and Tower was being unfairly accused on the basis of nothing but hearsay and gossip.

“I don’t believe that anybody should be pilloried on the basis of unfounded rumor,” Bush told reporters at the White House. “I’ve known John Tower a long time--longer than many that are criticizing him out there in various walks of life.”

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Dole Reads Letter

The Republican strategy was unveiled at a party caucus in which Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas sought to solidify support for Tower by reading an emotional letter from the nominee’s three daughters. Dole suggested that the sordid stories being told about Tower had devastated his family.

Republicans contend that while the FBI uncovered considerable evidence that Tower drank to excess in the 1970s, the probe found nothing to suggest that his drinking has continued to be excessive in recent years or that liquor consumption ever impaired his job performance.

Rudman, a former prosecutor who spent five hours reading the FBI report, said Tower’s ability to serve as defense secretary should be judged not on the basis of how much liquor he is alleged to have consumed, but on evidence that it impaired him.

“There is not one scintilla of evidence of impairment,” he said. “There is not one allegation in the report of Sen. Tower ever being observed to have been impaired in his duties as a senator, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee or as U.S. arms negotiator.”

Rudman characterized the report as “trivia piled on trivia, piled on irresponsible accusation, piled on hearsay.”

Leaking of Bogus Story

He was particularly critical of the Democrats for leaking a bogus story that Tower was once seen reveling in the company of a Soviet ballerina--a story he said the FBI found to be completely false. He described the tale as “a figment of a deranged mind.”

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Simpson said the entire FBI report, which senators have been reading in a heavily guarded room in the Capitol, is “absolute garbage--it’s like reading Lewis Carroll,” the author of “Alice in Wonderland.”

But Democrats fiercely defended their interpretation of their FBI report. Responding directly to Simpson’s contention that the FBI found no proof to support the allegations, Hollings quipped: “Tell him to take remedial reading.”

A number of Republicans took the opportunity to attack the motives of the Democrats in criticizing Tower--particularly Nunn, whose leadership on this issue has widely been viewed by his critics as an outgrowth of his well-known ambitions to be President.

Rudman said Tower had been “made the victim of allegations of many irresponsible people,” and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) suggested that Nunn is opposing Tower because as chairman of the Armed Services Committee he would have more power with a weaker secretary of defense.

Meanwhile, Nunn, who has been keeping a low profile since the committee’s 11-9 party-line vote against Tower last week, acknowledged to reporters that he has been telephoning Democrats to discuss his reasons for opposing the Tower nomination. But he denied that he has been vigorously lobbying for votes against Tower, as Republicans contend.

The warmest response Bush got from his Democratic callers came from Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a freshman, who told reporters that the Constitution requires senators to “give the President the benefit of the doubt” on Cabinet nominations. Nevertheless, Lieberman only agreed to remain uncommitted for a while.

By contrast, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said after his meeting with Bush that he was “leaning strongly against” the nomination. Other Democrats who visited the President included Sens. John B. Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Charles S. Robb of Virginia, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

Despite the lackluster response, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Bush would “absolutely not” withdraw the nomination. He added that Tower had repeatedly told White House officials that he would not ask that his name be taken out of consideration.

“The President believes strongly in the nomination, believes all the senators should have a right to register their vote, and we intend to give them that right,” Fitzwater said.

Some senior Republican operatives involved in the battle have advised the White House against using this highly partisan strategy. “It never works” and could backfire, said one longtime strategist. “I can’t believe they would do something that dumb.”

The Administration also sought to shift the focus of the debate away from Tower’s personal life and onto his qualifications for the job of running the Pentagon.

Vice President Dan Quayle, in an unusual news conference on Capitol Hill, said that Tower clearly made some enemies in the Senate during his tenure as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the early 1980s. He attributed it to Tower’s success as “a very direct, tough, competitive” chairman in fighting for the Ronald Reagan Administration’s military buildup.

Quayle added: “You don’t have to like John Tower, but they ought to respect him for his capabilities. They ought to respect him for his detailed knowledge of the Defense Department.”

Staff writers David Lauter, Josh Getlin, Jack Nelson and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.


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