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Defense Post Called Unique : Tower Debate: Precedent for Nominees of Future?

Times Staff Writer

As senators resume their acrimonious debate today over John Tower’s bid to become defense secretary, they will also be grappling with a broader and perhaps graver concern: whether their extraordinary examination of Tower’s personal life is leading down a dangerous road.

Is Tower being judged by a new, tougher standard for high public officials? If so, will that standard apply only in a handful of especially sensitive posts or will it spread to a broad array of public jobs? And if the intimate details of a potential official’s life are subject to public scrutiny, will that discourage capable individuals from entering government service?

“Part of this debate has to do with the future,” says Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.). “I think we have to have a high ethical standard, but I just wonder . . . “

Predictably, some combatants see the issues in black and white. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) says the treatment of Tower “is truly corrupting the confirmation process. . . . I think it is going to discourage very good people from subjecting themselves to this process.”

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Conversely, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said recently: “I hope we have a higher standard for someone with a finger on the button. There are a lot of people in this body (the Senate) that I might not vote for to be secretary of defense.”

Beyond these partisan views, however, students of the confirmation process--including former members of Congress and scholars--say that neither the current focus on personal frailties nor the tough standard being applied to the top Pentagon job are all that new.

Before Tower, there was Gary Hart, dogged by controversy about his extramarital affairs, and before him Geraldine A. Ferraro, whose husband’s personal finances were intensely scrutinized after she was named the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 1984. Seventeen years ago, Thomas F. Eagleton’s vice presidential bid succumbed to debate over his previous treatment for depression.

Nor has the scrutiny been limited to those seeking high elective office. In 1973, for example, after Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned, then-President Richard M. Nixon quietly passed to congressional leaders the name of a leading candidate to replace him. But when Nixon got word back that the man would not be confirmable because of certain concerns about his background, recalled political scientist Nelson W. Polsby, Nixon dropped the idea and chose Gerald R. Ford instead.

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Similar decisions have been made by other presidents with other nominees, he said.

What is new in this case, said Polsby, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, “is that people are doing in public what they have in the past done privately.”

Usually Quiet Process

“There is a range of behavior that has been considered unacceptable in some circumstances, but it’s usually been a situation where people pass the word quietly,” Polsby said. The difference this time, because President Bush chose to push ahead with Tower despite danger signs, is “in the publicity.”

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Changing public standards of morality notwithstanding, the nation has always been fairly strict about the rules for particularly powerful posts like secretary of defense, says historian and presidential biographer William Leuchtenberg. “Sober judgment” has been the watchword, he said.

Many factors have played into the fight over Tower’s nomination, including political tensions between a Republican President and Democratic senators; the settling of old scores by senators whom Tower offended or wounded in the past, and the concerns over Tower’s ties to defense contractors at a time when the Pentagon’s relationship to its contractors is enveloped in scandal.

But what has been at the heart of the controversy is Tower’s involvement with alcohol--what Nunn called the “record of alcohol abuse by the nominee.”

The possibility of a serious alcohol problem in an official with authority over U.S. military forces has given the opposition unusual staying power in the face of GOP attacks, presidential pleading and countervailing historical precedent.

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Can Control Weapons

The secretary of defense’s power over the military, and particularly nuclear weapons, is far greater than commonly known. In fact, in some circumstances the defense chief, rather than being merely an adviser to the President, has actual control over the use of such weapons.

For that reason, Tower’s opponents and some outside specialists say, the extraordinary scrutiny of his personal life will not spread into the general process of selecting government officials, precisely because the defense secretary’s job is almost in a class by itself.

“There are really only two jobs outside the active-duty military that people who have alcohol problems couldn’t take care of,” says political scientist and former Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), himself a recovering alcoholic.

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“One is the President of the United States and the other is secretary of defense. I wouldn’t be in favor of my being there, and if I had to vote on Tower when his hand would be on the big trigger, I wouldn’t be for that.”

But what, exactly, is Tower’s record with alcohol?

So far as the past is concerned, the nominee himself has conceded that he once drank heavily. For the future, he has pledged not to drink at all if he is confirmed.

What remains unclear--and thus a basis of concern for some of those opposing him--is the uncertainty about the nature of Tower’s involvement with alcohol now.

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Denies Drinking Problem

Tower has denied having a “drinking problem” or being an alcoholic. “Twelve years ago, I gave up spirits,” he says. “I used to be a pretty good Scotch drinker. And I gave it up. I haven’t tasted Scotch in 12 years.

“After that, I had only wine. Had perhaps an occasional martini, occasionally a little vodka with smoked salmon or caviar or something like that. But that was just occasionally. I really essentially have been a wine drinker. And now, my only consumption is wine at meals. I don’t drink wine even unless I’m eating.”

Tower has also produced a letter from his doctor stating that in December, when he underwent surgery, his liver appeared normal, and he showed no signs of alcohol withdrawal during post-operative treatment.

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Further, Tower’s supporters emphasize that no senator who served with him has come forward to recall a time when Tower’s work was impaired by drink. Senate Republicans have urged their colleagues to judge Tower by their personal recollections, not by the conflicting statements from the FBI’s investigation of the nominee.

But Tower’s opponents are unconvinced. If he continues to have a drinking problem now, whether immediate or potential, they suggest, then his pledge of abstinence may rest on sand.

No Conclusive Proof

And experts on alcohol abuse say that none of the points made by Tower and his supporters is conclusive proof that no problem exists.

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“Only 10% of alcoholics get cirrhosis (of the liver),” said Dr. Joseph A. Pursch, one of the nation’s leading experts on alcohol abuse who treated former First Lady Betty Ford, former Sen. Herman Talmadge and former President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy Carter at the Long Beach Naval Hospital. “There is person-damage long before there is liver damage.”

Similarly, doctors note, the pain killers usually given after operations can block signs of alcohol withdrawal if a patient is, in fact, dependent. And the testimony of close working associates often sheds little light on a person’s drinking habits.

Bolling recalled, for example, that when he announced in 1979 that he was an alcoholic and entered Bethesda Naval Medical Center for treatment, “a lot of my friends said ‘ridiculous’ and that I clearly wasn’t an alcoholic” because alcohol had not impaired his ability to do his duties as one of Congress’ most powerful members. “I hardly ever had a problem,” he said.

Given the ambiguity of the evidence and difficulty of interpreting it, Tower’s opponents argue that the burden of proof has to be on the nominee and his supporters to prove that he would be safe to confirm.

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That standard, they concede, is far tougher than that which most other nominees for high government posts--or senators themselves--have had to meet. Indeed, it reverses the burden of proof for conviction of a crime, when it is up to the prosecution to prove guilt, not the defendant to prove innocence. In a criminal case, however, the government is seeking to deprive a person of something that belongs to him--his property or liberty. In a nomination, the question is whether a person should be given something that belongs to the nation.

And in the case of nominations to this particular office, “We do have a double standard, and we should have a double standard,” says Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). “If the secretary of transportation some evening has a little too much to drink, he isn’t going to do any great damage. But if the defense secretary gets a call at 2 a.m. that Syria has invaded Israel or India has invaded Pakistan, I want that person to be clear-headed.”

While the standard being applied to Tower is especially strict for public appointees, it is similar to the rules under which uniformed personnel of the armed forces labor. Particularly in the case of the nation’s nuclear forces, standards on alcohol abuse are stringent.

Nunn has made a particular point of that comparison, arguing that Tower’s “history of excessive drinking is such that he would not be selected to command a missile wing, a SAC (Strategic Air Command) bomber squadron or a Trident missile submarine.”

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Under the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons personnel reliability program, commanders have broad latitude in temporarily suspending airmen and women found to be dependent on alcohol. They can also “permanently suspend” such personnel from any duties connected to nuclear weapons.

Precisely what power the defense secretary would have in connection with using nuclear weapons is one of the enduring mysteries of the atomic age, shrouded behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds U.S. war-fighting plans. But experts in the command and control of U.S. military forces say the defense secretary’s powers are considerable.

Secretary Issues Orders

“In operational terms, the national command authorities are really the President or the secretary of defense,” says Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Blair, a specialist in the control of nuclear forces. “The military will take their orders from the secretary of defense, including in some cases, the release of strategic weapons.”

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Several times in the nuclear age, defense secretaries have taken unilateral action. In the hours after President Ronald Reagan was shot in March, 1981, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger ordered the nation’s strategic bomber force into a state of alert that moved the United States a small notch closer to the threshold for nuclear war.

In October, 1973, at the time of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, without first consulting President Nixon, ordered all of the nation’s strategic nuclear forces--intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines--on worldwide alert.

And in the final days of the Nixon Administration, Schlesinger, concerned about what he considered Nixon’s excessive drinking and deep mental depression over Watergate, warned the nation’s military commanders that they should accept no commands from the White House without his counter-signature.

In addition, according to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), at least twice during the nuclear age, defense secretaries have quietly countermanded orders from presidents whom they believed to be under the influence of alcohol. Cranston refuses to name cases.

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Decision Time Compressed

As the technology of the nuclear age has compressed decision times to minutes rather than hours, experts believe the secretary of defense will be ever more likely to be the one who may have to decide whether nuclear weapons should fly.

“When we had a cavalry, or when we fought out of foxholes, maybe the standards would not have been this exacting or demanding,” said Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), a Tower opponent. “But today with 22 minutes’ notice, the requirements are rising.”

If the responsibilities of the secretary of defense do indeed make a higher standard appropriate for that office, there yet remains the possibility that the extraordinary public examination of a potential official’s private conduct could become a dangerous precedent, at least for a time.

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Critics note that the Watergate scandal ushered in an era of preoccupation with possible criminal conduct by officials at all levels of government--scrutiny which sometimes went too far and led to investigations that were damaging but ultimately groundless.

So too the Tower case could lead to excessive intrusions into the details of private lives which, though titillating, had little or nothing to do with an official’s ability to serve, these critics say.

“Whenever anything works, by definition you set a new standard. If they do stop John Tower, inevitably they will be setting a standard,” said Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. “I just don’t think you can keep it out from now on,” he said, referring to questions about nominees’ personal lives. “I think it’s going to be there.”

Earlier Fears Evaporate

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But many of the same critics argued after the Senate defeat in 1987 of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork that future court nominations would be forever politicized. That concern seemed to evaporate only a few months later when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was confirmed after a polite, controversy-free and cursory examination.

In any case, suggested Pryor, while at least for some time, some future nominees may get additional scrutiny because of the current controversy, given the importance of the current nomination, that problem simply cannot be avoided.

“In the long run, this debate may be good for the institution” of the Senate because it may clarify what appropriate standards should be, said Pryor. “In the short run, however, it ain’t fun.”

Staff writers Paul Houston, Melissa Healy, Cathleen Decker, Sara Fritz and Marlene Cimons contributed to this story.

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