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Tower’s Alamo

The Senate’s refusal to confirm John Tower as secretary of defense has been blamed in advance by the former Texas senator’s supporters on such stratagems as brute partisan politics by the majority Democrats; a hypocritical insistence on demanding impossibly high behavioral standards from the executive branch; a ploy by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to seize control of defense policy, and a denial of presidential prerogative that saw Senate Democrats conniving to embarrass the Bush Administration in its earliest days in office. This formidable bill of complaints over-complicates what in fact was a straightforward and simple collective decision: Tower was rejected for no worse and no more devious reason than that most senators rightly held him to be ethically and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s been known for a long time that at least some of the President’s advisers suspected early on that this would be the Senate’s conclusion, feared the messy spectacle that would precede it and urged Bush to find another nominee. Bush chose to stick with his man, and so the scene was set for one of the more bitter floor fights of recent decades. Some in the White House, probably including Bush himself, were apparently certain that senators would have little choice but to confirm one who had long sat among them; never before had a former senator been refused confirmation. But intimate acquaintance can provide a window on character that permits the bad as well as the good to be observed. Of the 100 senators who decided Tower’s fate, 71 had served with him. Perhaps less familiarity might not have bred so strong an opposition.

The compelling need now is for the Senate and the White House to put this unhappy and often sordid affair behind them and get on with the nation’s pressing business. Bush has indicated he won’t delay nominating a replacement for Tower. He doesn’t have to look far to find an impressive number of competent, respected and tested candidates. Among them are former defense secretaries James R. Schlesinger, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Harold Brown; retired admiral and former deputy CIA director Bobby Inman; Donald B. Rice, president of the RAND Corp. There are others who would easily pass muster.

Until a new nominee is confirmed and in a position to select or approve various deputies and service secretaries, major decisions regarding weapons, budgetary allocations, policies and strategy will go on being deferred. The chiefs of the uniformed services, who must carry out the decisions of their civilian superiors, are showing an understandable edginess over the long delay. That delay has been unfortunate and troubling. It also has been necessary as the Senate has conscientiously met its constitutional responsibility.

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