A combative John Tower said today that senators questioning his fitness to be defense secretary should look to their own moral standards.
The embattled Tower unleashed a two-fisted defense of his own character and counterattacks against his critics shortly before the Senate was expected to formally begin debate on his nomination, which Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) declared against today.
Tower made clear that he and President Bush have no intention of withdrawing the nomination, quoting the last words of fellow Texan Col. William Travis in the 19th-Century battle of the Alamo: “I shall never surrender or retreat.”
Travis and all the American defenders were wiped out by the Mexican army that besieged and eventually overran them at the Alamo, and the battle has become synonymous with gallantry but also with losing causes.
Tower later said the comparison was unfortunate.
Tower, under attack like no Cabinet nominee in memory on allegations of alcohol abuse, womanizing and close ties to defense contractors, made his feisty comments in response to questions during an appearance at the National Press Club.
He said he is bothered that there is “no clearly defined standard against which I could be judged. The standards seemed to evolve to fit the situation.”
“I accept that the secretary of defense must adhere to a higher standard,” Tower said. But he added, pointedly, “My question is, how much lower an acceptable standard is there for members of the Senate.”
“Is it an acceptable standard for senators, late in the evening, who’ve had a few drinks in the hideaways and offices of the Capitol a few steps away from the Senate chamber, to come on the floor and vote on vital issues of nuclear deterrence?” Tower asked, pulling into the open the well-known--but little discussed--fact that a number of lawmakers have appeared inebriated on the Senate floor over the years.
In a response to suggestions of conflict of interest, Tower posed this question: “Is it an acceptable standard for senators to accept honoraria, PAC (political action committee) contributions and paid vacations from special interests, who have a vested interest in the legislative process?”
“I think . . . it is time Congress articulated what its own standards are,” said Tower, who served more than two decades in the Senate.
The twice-divorced Tower repeated his vow to swear off drinking altogether if confirmed, and in a tart reply to a question about whether he had broken vows in the past--specifically, his wedding vows--said: “As a matter of fact, I have broken wedding vows. I think I am probably not alone in that connection.”
While he dealt directly with the issues threatening to derail his nomination, Tower also showed his flare for cut-and-thrust humor.
Asked how he felt about the furor his nomination has caused, Tower replied: “I feel a little bit like the fellow that had been immersed in tar and feathers and was being ridden out of town on a rail, and he said, ‘Really, gentlemen, if it weren’t for the honor, I’d rather hitchhike.’ ”