The Times Poll : Americans Oppose Tower, Suspect Conflict of Interest

Times Staff Writer

Americans do not think the Senate should confirm John Tower as defense secretary, and they overwhelmingly reject the argument that a President should be allowed to fill his Cabinet with anybody he chooses, a nationwide survey by the Times Poll has found.

What bothers people most about Tower--far more than his alleged history of heavy drinking and womanizing--is the suspicion that he may have a conflict of interest because of consulting fees he received from defense contractors after he left the Senate, the survey showed.

And on the alcohol issue, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed--64%--said they did not “trust” Tower to abide by his pledge to forsake all liquor while serving as defense secretary. Only 22% believed he could keep the pledge.

So far, the public’s negative opinion of Tower seems not to have rubbed off on President Bush. He enjoys a relatively high job rating--59% approval to 13% disapproval.


But there are danger signs ahead for the new President as he continues his no-retreat, uphill fight for Tower, the poll also indicated. Many Americans--28%--still are in the process of forming an opinion about Bush, and these people oppose Tower’s nomination 4 to 1.

The Times poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, interviewed 1,046 adults by telephone Wednesday and Thursday, just as the full Senate was beginning to debate Tower’s nomi nation in anticipation of a vote this week. The margin of error for the survey was 4 percentage points in either direction.

“Ronald Reagan used to be able to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to the voters, but this poll shows that such a tactic probably won’t work for President Bush this time because the Tower nomination doesn’t have all that much support to begin with,” Lewis said.

The poll showed clearly that Bush’s nomination of Tower was not a popular move--just as his selection of Dan Quayle as his vice president had troubled people. Only a slim majority--52%--said they believe the President “has good judgment about hiring people for government.”


Potential Consequences

The potential political consequences to Bush of trying to win Tower’s confirmation can also be seen in another way: Although 61% of those surveyed said Bush’s nomination of Tower had not affected their overall impression of the President, a significant number--29%--reported that their opinions of him indeed had fallen.

Tower’s nomination was approved by only 18% of those interviewed. Forty-four percent disapproved of it and 38% were not sure. Not even Bush’s core constituency--Republicans and conservatives--favored the nomination.

But now that Tower has been nominated and is the subject of a bitter political fight, Republicans believe he should be confirmed, the poll showed. Democrats, meanwhile, are adamantly opposed to his confirmation. The overall result is that 44% of the public think Tower should be rejected by the Senate and just 35% believe he should be confirmed. The rest--21%--are not sure.

Americans of all political persuasions believe overwhelmingly that “the Senate should take a strong stand” and exercise its constitutional right to “review the qualifications” of presidential nominees. By 82% to 12%, those surveyed rejected the thesis--promoted by the Administration and Republican senators--that “the President should be given a free hand to pick whomever he chooses for his Cabinet.”

A majority of people--52%--thought Tower had been “treated fairly” by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which voted 11 to 9 along strict party lines to reject his nomination. Only 25% said he had been handled unfairly. Even conservatives considered his treatment to be equitable.

Public Cynical

At the same time, the public is cynical about the Senate’s motives, believing that the lawmakers mostly are “playing partisan politics” rather than “trying to uphold high standards of government conduct.”


Those surveyed believed that “the most serious” charge against Tower is that he has a conflict of interest because of the $750,000 he was paid by major defense contractors in the 2 1/2 years after he left the Senate. After retiring as a senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Tower served as an arms control negotiator in the Reagan Administration and then became a defense industry consultant.

Fifty-six percent of the people who were interviewed considered the conflict of interest issue to be the most serious--twice as many as were worried about excessive drinking (26%) and nine times as many as were disturbed by the allegations of womanizing (6%).

Women Bothered by Drinking

Women tended to be slightly more bothered by the drinking than were men, but not any more by the womanizing. Teetotalers also tended to regard the liquor accusation as more worrisome than did people who said their average daily alcohol consumption was at least one drink a day.

The majority of people--58%--thought that Tower’s “drinking would impair his ability” to carry out the duties of defense secretary. Only 27% felt his performance would not be impaired. Again, teetotalers were the most skeptical about the job performance of a heavy-drinking defense secretary.

The American public’s impression of life styles within the upper echelons of government in Washington is that drinking is “fairly widespread,” the survey showed.

By region, Westerners objected the most to Tower’s nomination.



Do you trust John Tower when he says he won’t take a drink?

Yes: 22%

No: 64%

Don’t know: 14%

What do you think the most serious charge is against Tower?

Conflict of

Interest: 56%

Drinking: 26%

Womanizing: 6%

Don’t know: 12%

Do you think drinking would impair Tower’s ability to defend the nation?

Yes: 58%

No: 27%

Don’t know: 15%

How much drinking do you think goes on in the Senate and the White House?

(People with no opinion not included)

Excessive: 23%

Widespread: 63%

Not common: 12%

Almost nonexistent: 2%

Source: Times Poll