Scrutiny of Public Officials Puts Standards to the Test

Times Staff Writer

While this is hardly the rough and tumble city of the 19th Century, when politicians drank freely at gambling houses, more than a few senators preparing to pass judgment on whether former Texas Sen. John Tower’s drinking history disqualifies him to be defense secretary are themselves substantial tipplers.

In recent years, at least six senators repeatedly have wobbled into the chamber to cast votes, says a top Senate aide, who ticked off the names of four Republicans and two Democrats.

The august Senate that also is weighing Tower’s relations with women and defense contractors has had its own share of sex scandals and money-taking from special interests over the years.

This contrast between what senators may do and what they will countenance in a top Administration official has become the subject of increasing controversy, as Tower appears headed for rejection from the defense post amid acrimonious debate over his personal and professional life.


See Hypocrisy

Tower and some of his Republican defenders charge that his rough treatment reflects bald hypocrisy on the part of senators whose own lives could not withstand close scrutiny.

“This is a very dangerous thing, because the standard to which John Tower is being held is one that various commanders-in-chief and members of Congress could have never met over the last 50 years. And they were, as Tower would be, very good leaders for the country,” said lobbyist Stephen Bell, former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

On the other hand, Tower’s chief critic--Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)--contends that a tougher standard for a defense secretary is justified.


“We have to have a different rule for the man in the chain of command than we do for United States senators,” Nunn said last Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.” “He’s got his finger on the (nuclear weapons) button, right next to the President’s.”

Reviewing the debate, historian William Leuchtenberg of the University of North Carolina said, “there is something bewildering going on here” in regard to changing morality.

Perspective of Morality

Private morality clearly is less strict than it was decades ago, before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the widespread acceptance of divorce and cohabitation and the general legitimization of “alternative life styles,” he observed.

Yet, in those earlier times, he said, the public was willing to accept behavior that today would be almost automatically disqualifying for a person in public life. Moreover, much less of a public official’s private life then ever became public.

Several movements in popular culture may be contributing to the change. One is shifting attitudes on drinking. Total U.S. consumption of alcoholic beverages is down; there has been a rapid, widespread movement to toughen drunk driving laws.

On the sexual front, “there’s clearly a different attitude toward women,” Leuchtenberg noted. Many Americans once were inclined to accept the idea that mistresses were something prominent men had. But now the notion that a womanizer is some kind of hero “hasn’t died out but it certainly looks different,” he said.

Role of Press


Moreover, the press, which once shied from reporting private habits of public figures, has become increasingly aggressive since former Rep. Wilbur D. Mills’ alcoholic escapades with stripper Fanne Foxe came to public attention when she leaped into Washington’s Tidal Basin in 1974.

As the debate over standards roared Wednesday, a senior Bush adviser quipped: “I guess the standard now is, it’s OK to be a drunk or a womanizer if you’re a United States senator, but not if you want a responsible job.”

Another GOP strategist opined that “the parable of the first stone has restrained people from injecting these sorts of issues into battles in the past,” but “now that that line has been crossed, it’s going to be tough.”

In the 19th Century, drinking was so prevalent that a little place in the Capitol called “The Hole in the Wall” served alcoholic spirits, said Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.

“The gents drank and played cards in the gambling houses along ‘Rum Row,’ right across from ‘Newspaper Row,’ ” he said. “Cigars and bourbons put Sen. Daniel Webster’s picture on their products. People thought of politicians in those terms, and Webster was known as someone who enjoyed fine wines and spirits. So did (House Speaker) Henry Clay.”

Ritchie said most politicians in recent years “look like real straight arrows by comparison to the characters who used to walk through the Capitol.”

One 1883 scandal was even commemorated in an opera, “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” describing how the bigamous marriage of Horace Tabor (R-Colo.) and the attractive Miss Doe forced his resignation from the Senate after only five weeks on the job.

In modern times, drinking has arisen as an issue for several senators but mostly in connection with other troubles.


The late Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), censured by the Senate in 1967 for financial misconduct, used as part of his defense that he was not in complete control of himself because of alcoholism.

Ironically, one of Dodd’s chief defenders was then-Sen. Tower. The White House now is hopeful that Dodd’s son, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), will return the favor and break Democratic ranks to vote for Tower’s nomination as defense secretary.

Senate Democrats appear to be rallying around Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn in the wake of Republican attacks on his fairness. Page 17.