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Tower Assails His Foes’ Standards : Nominee Says Their Rules of Behavior Shift; Admits Breaking Wedding Vows

Times Staff Writer

Embattled defense secretary-designate John Tower, speaking on the eve of Senate debate on his confirmation, admitted Wednesday that he has “broken wedding vows” in the past but assailed his congressional opponents for judging him on shifting standards that “seemed to evolve to fit the situation.”

“I accept that the secretary of defense must adhere to a higher standard than members of the U.S. Senate,” Tower said. “But my question is, how much lower an acceptable standard is there for members of the Senate?”

The twice-divorced Tower told a questioner, “As a matter of a fact, I have broken wedding vows. I think I’m probably not alone in that connection.”

But the nominee asserted: “It is time that Congress articulated what its own standards are.”

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Tower’s remarks, made during a speech and question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, were part of an intensified Administration effort to increase the political pressure on Senate Democrats who are now prepared to defeat his nomination.

Features Direct Attack

While the address centered on Tower’s agenda for reforming the Pentagon, it featured his first direct attack on former colleagues whom he maintains have focused unfair attention on unproven allegations of heavy drinking and womanizing and on his close financial ties to defense contractors.

The Administration’s effort, while upping the partisan stakes in the battle, did not seem to be winning any Democratic converts to Tower’s cause. By the end of the day, four more Democrats had come out against the nominee, including two whom the White House has considered potential supporters.

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With Tower needing at least five Democratic votes to win confirmation, the potential pool of Democrats believed undecided thus fell to only eight.

Tower said he has tried to meet the strict standards of personal conduct being applied to him, but that they seemed to be uncertain and inconsistent.

His pledge not to consume alcohol “is an oath that I have taken--taken for, to and before the American people. And I regard such oaths as sacred,” he said.

Tower, who served for 24 years in the Senate and headed the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked whether senators should accept honorariums, political action committee contributions and paid vacations from special interest groups. Many senators who do, his defenders have pointed out, have been harsh in criticizing his consulting work for defense contractors after he left public life.

Even as the odds against his confirmation remained grim, Tower vowed that he would not withdraw his name from the Senate fight. Quoting the words of William Barret Travis during the siege of the Alamo, Tower declared, “I shall never surrender or retreat.”

No Signs of Retreat

President Bush, who continued to lobby undecided senators at the White House, also showed no sign of retreat on Wednesday, making a public appeal to the senators to base their actions on fair play and fact, rather than rumors.

“The debate . . . should clearly be based on principle and on policy and it ought not to be based on rumor and innuendo,” he said.

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“Americans, whatever their policies . . . whatever their politics, are committed to the concept of fair play and are committed to decency,” said the President in a speech Wednesday to the Small Business Legislative Council. “All I am asking, in the name of fair play, is that the man be judged on the facts, not on misperceptions.”

The four previously uncommitted Senate Democrats who announced they would vote against Tower were Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, David L. Boren of Oklahoma, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. Mitchell, Bradley and Boren had met with Bush before declaring their decisions.

On Capitol Hill, Tower’s pledge to forswear alcohol if confirmed as defense secretary has met with skepticism. Two Democratic senators revealed Wednesday that Tower’s second wife said the former senator frequently pledged during their marriage to stop his drinking, but never did.

Cites 3 Pledges

Lilla Burt Cummings, from whom Tower was divorced in 1987, told the FBI that Tower made these pledges in 1982, 1983, 1986 and several times within the last year.

Both Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who disclosed evidence of these earlier pledges, said it raised doubts that Tower could keep his most recent pledge.

“You can’t come back now and take another pledge,” said Hollings. “That’s the same as: ‘Why, I haven’t done anything wrong and I promise to stop doing it.’ ”

As the Senate delayed the beginning of Senate debate until today or possibly later, White House aides conceded that the new strategy of attacking the Democrats for handling Tower unfairly is a tacit admission that the nomination is headed for defeat.

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“This fight has to be completed, and I’m not completely giving up hope,” said a senior strategist.

But, he conceded, the Administration currently cannot count more than 44 votes for Tower and sees nothing on the horizon that might bring the total to 50. Democrats control the Senate 55 to 45.

Dispatched to Capitol Hill to lobby for the nomination, Vice President Dan Quayle told reporters, “We don’t have 50 votes yet, but we’re moving in that direction.”

Even Tower had acknowledged the irony in his citation of Travis’ historic words, made 10 days before the Alamo was overrun by the Mexican army. “I’m a little sorry I brought up the Alamo analogy,” he said with a laugh.

Republican strategists said it is important that the Administration put up a good fight, even if it fails in the end.

“You can’t show weakness this early in the presidency,” said a senior Administration adviser. He added that the Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), are now “truly angry” and looking for a fight.

“I’m not sure we could stop it if we wanted to,” the official said.

An NBC News poll, meanwhile, said Americans opposed the Tower confirmation by a margin of almost 2-1. According to NBC, 54% said Tower should not be confirmed, while 28% felt that he should.

By an even broader margin--68% to 14%--respondents felt Bush could have found a better candidate to head the Defense Department. The poll was conducted earlier this week, NBC said, among 1,079 respondents nationwide. The statistical margin of error was 4%.

In lashing out at congressional critics, Tower warned that if “character assassination” has become an acceptable means of wielding political power, “we have ushered in a new and rather ugly phase in American politics.”

No Consulting Plans

Tower said that whether or not he is confirmed by the Senate in a vote expected next week, he has “no intention” of returning to the defense consulting business.

“My involvement in the national security area will be in the academic area,” Tower said.

If denied confirmation, Tower said, “it is my plan to load up my 1972 Dodge Charger, 400 Magnum, with all my possessions--mattress strapped to the roof and all that sort of thing--and head back to Texas.”

But Tower said that he “might be back from time to time, in one capacity or another.”

Noting that his grandparents had lived into their 90s, Tower said, “my enemies can take small comfort that I will depart this world anytime soon.”

Tower’s comments on his marital vows were among his few on a subject that has played such a key role in his confirmation.

In a CBS interview on Dec. 25, Tower repeatedly stated he had never been unfaithful to his second wife.

A statement released by a Tower spokesman said that Tower “stands by this statement, and he notes that marriage vows have to do with a great deal more than the question of infidelity.”

But the statement added that “the senator’s oath and pledge to the American people is of the same character as is his oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States--an oath he has never broken.”

Tower and his first wife, Joza Lou Bullington, were divorced in 1976. At that time, Tower was reported to have begun a relationship with Cummings, whom he married in 1977.

Staff writers Sara Fritz, David Lauter and James Gerstanzang contributed to this story.


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