Past bouts of heavy drinking “didn’t impact on my work,” Defense Secretary-designate John Tower declared in an interview, adding: “When I’m under stress, in times of crisis, working against deadlines, I don’t drink at all.
“You’ve heard about people who drink under stress. I don’t. . . . That is not the mark of someone who is alcohol-dependent,” Tower said, complaining that too much has been made of his involvement with alcohol.
Tower, his prospects for Senate confirmation dwindling with the continuing loss of support from undecided Senate Democrats, discussed the increasingly bitter struggle over his nomination in an interview at the Pentagon with reporters from The Times and three other major newspapers. The 35-minute interview was conducted Friday but embargoed for release today.
Presented as Victim
The interview was part of a stepped-up campaign by the White House and Senate Republicans to present Tower as the victim of a partisan vendetta by Democrats who bear grudges from past battles with the former Texas senator and want to deny him the powerful Cabinet post.
“There are some people in the Senate who just do not want me to be secretary of defense--period--and are prepared to embrace any plausible excuse for voting against me,” Tower said.
In a subdued but forceful defense of his nomination, Tower discussed the three areas on which his fitness for the top Pentagon post has been challenged: allegations of womanizing, excessive drinking and close ties to major defense contractors.
He acknowledged that what he called the “dedicated opposition” of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has made his struggle for Senate approval an uphill battle.
But he repeated earlier complaints that his opponents are judging his fitness for the top Pentagon post on shifting grounds and by tougher standards than those applied to Cabinet secretaries or even presidents in the past.
Tower called the confirmation process “tantamount to a public trial” and expressed bitterness that many of his former colleagues appear to give the allegations of “anonymous accusers” more weight than their own observations of his performance in the Senate.
Tower said he still hopes to change minds among his critics before the expected Senate vote this week. While declining to speculate on the motives of lawmakers aligned against him, he said of Nunn, considered a rival force on defense issues: “I think he does want to be a very assertive voice in the national security issue. I think that’s a given.”
Tower dismissed as a “phony rap” charges that his past consulting relationships with defense contractors were improper. The ex-senator, who made more then $760,000 in two years consulting defense contractors, noted that recent “revolving door” legislation was not designed to block the “cross-fertilization” between the government and defense industry.
“You have to be careful what kinds of standards you set on that,” he warned, saying knowledge of the industry is important in the Pentagon post.
At the same time, Tower declared that a chronic alcoholic “should not be secretary of defense, obviously” and that those with “a clear pattern of sexual harassment . . . shouldn’t be considered for any Cabinet post . . . (or) for any senior position in government.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee, which recommended 11 to 9 against Tower’s confirmation on Feb. 16, reported that it had found no evidence that Tower “exerted sexual pressure” on female employees or associates. But the committee noted “there are a number of examples of personal conduct which the committee found indiscreet and which call into question Sen. Tower’s judgment.”
Tower said he is proud of his professional relationship with women--one he said few of his colleagues could match.
Noting that at times he was the only senator to have a woman running his statewide campaign or serving as his senior administrator, he said he gets “very high marks on providing equal opportunity for women and treating my female professionals with great respect.”
”. . . As a matter of fact, I’ve if anything tended to favor women of great professional competence, because, competing in a man’s world, they tend to work harder and dedicate themselves a little more intensively to what they’ve done,” Tower said.
In the wake of last Sunday’s dramatic pledge to forswear the consumption of alcohol if confirmed as secretary of defense, Tower said he has continued to drink wine with dinner, “although not on a daily basis.”
“I drank to excess in some instances” in the past, he said, but now has “no concern” that he will be able to abstain. “Delighted to do it,” he said, adding the Pentagon heavy workload should make that easier. “I tend to get immersed in my work,” he said.
At the same time, Tower said that round-the-clock sobriety--a standard he says he embraces for the secretary of defense--"has never been exacted even with the President of the United States. F.D.R. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s 32nd President) used to sip martinis during the day when the war was going on.”
Tower also defended President Bush, who has steadfastly supported him since the nomination ran into controversy.
Bush ‘Reiterates’ Support
He said he has told Bush’s aides that he would gladly withdraw “if at any time this got to be an embarrassment to the President,” but that Bush “reiterates to me on a daily basis” that he wants him to press on.
“The President thinks in terms of what’s good for the country, what’s good for his Administration,” Tower said. “I don’t think that he would let old friendships or old loyalties . . . stand in the way of what he considers to be the national interest. And I believe he thinks the national interest is best served by pursuing this matter to a conclusion.”
If in the end the Senate rejects him, Tower said, “what you’re doing then is damning the President’s judgment.”
In a proposal made Friday, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) asked that Tower be given the opportunity to stand on the Senate floor and “answer his critics face-to-face, charge-by-charge, rumor-by-rumor and fact-by-fact.” But even such an unprecedented act of self-defense by Tower is considered unlikely to turn around his grim confirmation prospects. On Friday, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a key Democratic conservative, said he would oppose the Tower nomination, reducing to eight the number of undecided Democratic senators whom the Administration can lobby.
The White House must rally all 45 Senate Republicans and win the support of at least five Democrats if Tower is to be approved.