Senate Democrats appeared Wednesday to be rallying around Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in the wake of Republican attacks on his fairness and a newspaper report of a drunken driving incident he was involved in 24 years ago.
The attacks on Nunn escalated Tuesday when the Wall Street Journal editorial page took the unusual step of reprinting a 1972 article from the Atlanta Journal on the automobile accident.
White House lobbyists conceded that Democrats’ reaction to the attacks appeared to dim still further John Tower’s chances of being confirmed as defense secretary. Many Democrats, they said, now seem to feel that any support for Tower would be viewed as implied criticism of the respected and popular committee chairman.
Lawyer at the Time
According to the article, Nunn, then a 26-year-old lawyer, hit a parked and unoccupied car, then drove into a ditch on his way home from a late-night Halloween party in 1964. He later paid a fine for leaving the scene of an accident.
The Wall Street Journal accompanied the reprint with an editorial denouncing Nunn and the Senate Democrats for using ethics as a political weapon in the fight over the Tower confirmation. Nunn later in the day issued a statement saying that he had been under the influence of alcohol at the time and that the incident “taught me a lesson” he said he had never forgotten.
The episode may be more damaging now to Tower than to Nunn. Because it had previously been reported in Georgia, the fact that it has been reported again does not seem likely to affect his political fortunes there. In the Senate, the story seems to have caused some sympathy for Nunn and no sign of any reduction in his influence.
Tower supporters had been circulating the story about Nunn’s accident to other news organizations, including The Times, for more than a week prior to the Journal’s reprinting of the Atlanta article. Robert L. Bartley, editor of the Journal’s editorial page, declined Wednesday night to discuss whether the Journal’s decision to reprint the article had been sought by Tower supporters.
In addition to the Journal story, Senate Republicans Tuesday and Wednesday made a series of statements criticizing the nomination process that Nunn presided over. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), for example, called the process a “hatchet job” and said that Tower had been “shabbily treated.”
Asked whether he was directly accusing Nunn of being unfair, Dole called him “partisan” and added: “The facts are going to indicate what his motives are.”
Nunn publicly dismissed the attacks. “This is hardball,” Nunn said in an interview late Tuesday with a Georgia radio station. “I suppose when you’re in the hardball game you get bruised.”
But a senior White House adviser, saying the attacks had seemed to increase Nunn’s determination to defeat the nomination, conceded that the strategy was likely to backfire. He insisted, however, that Administration officials had not inspired the attacks although, he said, “we can’t control the actions of others.”
Democrats Praise Nunn
Nunn’s Democratic colleagues, meanwhile, went out of their way to praise Nunn in their comments on the Tower nomination Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), for example, referred to him as “one of the most respected, if not the most respected, members of the Senate.”