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For Nominees, Old Senate Rules Still Apply: Reputation, Friendship and Fear

<i> David Gergen, director of White House communications during Ronald Reagan's first term, is editor at large of U.S. News and World Report</i>

Picking through the shards of John Tower’s nomination, many observers argue that he was crushed as defense secretary because the Senate adopted a new set of rules and then applied them retroactively. The politics of confirmation will never be the same--or so it is said.

It is true that the Senate broke new ground in the Tower fight. Never before has the Cabinet nominee of a new President been rejected. Rarely has Capitol Hill wallowed so publicly in the private life of a presidential nominee, especially a former colleague. And certainly the rejection of Tower underscored how assertive Democrats in Congress have become in sharing power with Republican Presidents.

But it is a mistake to think that Tower was done in by new rules that will now hang dangerously over the head of every nominee to high office. If anything, his loss demonstrates that the old rules of politics are still in force and were the central cause of his undoing. Indeed, that lesson seems to have been learned best by George Bush himself, because in Rep. Dick Cheney--a superb alternative--the President has now turned to a man who in character and personality is the antithesis of Tower.

Reputation matters. A cardinal rule in Washington, as elsewhere, is that a man’s private reputation spills over into his professional life and affects the way he is treated. While the city is hardly puritanical, stories about Tower chasing after “booze and broads” went far beyond normal bounds. Tower was widely respected for his grasp of national-security issues; he was also known as a tough, combative politician. But that didn’t help young ladies on Capitol Hill who were afraid to ride an elevator alone with him.

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What was surprising was how many people volunteered tales to the Senate and the FBI. Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) points out that when the White House was weighing the nomination, it had only one volume of files from the FBI; by the time the Armed Services Committee voted, there were seven volumes. No doubt many accusations were false and scurrilous, but their sheer number so exceeded those of past nominees that they tilted the scales against him.

Friendships matter . Tower might have survived had he created a network of friends within the Senate. He did have some close allies on the Republican side, but many Democratic colleagues complained that he was stand-offish and arrogant, especially as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the early Reagan years. Dislike probably extended both ways. Once, upon returning from London with another handsomely tailored suit, Tower was greeted by Fritz Hollings of South Carolina: “Those look like nice threads,” said Sen. Hollings. “Straight from Savile Row,” replied Tower, proudly pulling himself up. “Why,” said Hollings, “I didn’t know they had a boys department at Savile Row.” The two men didn’t speak for a long while. The Senate is no longer much of a club, and Tower was never a member of what’s left.

Fear matters . Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, recalls that in the past, confirmations have been quietly checked out with senators in advance and many have been dropped without a fight. Richard Nixon reportedly circulated John Connally’s name to succeed Spiro Agnew as vice president and when he found it probably wouldn’t fly, nominated Gerald Ford. When George Bush insisted on Tower, despite early warnings, a huge public squabble became inevitable.

Bush could have saved Tower only if he could have instilled old-fashioned fear into the Democrats, but that is not yet part of his repertoire. Reagan often won early in his presidency because he swept 33 Republicans into the House and 12 Republicans into the Senate, seizing control. Democrats liked him personally, but more to the point, they were intimidated politically. Bush is the first President in 80 years whose party simultaneously lost seats in the Senate, House, statehouses and legislatures. Liked, he is; feared, he isn’t, and having lost on Tower, he will cut even less of a swath on Capitol Hill.

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Democrats may also wonder about Bush’s lobbying techniques. Even though he placed his presidential prestige on the line and was willing to fight for his man, he apparently never twisted anyone’s arm out of its socket nor did he horse trade for patronage (there are plenty of vacancies in the executive branch) or federal grants (there is still plenty of pork in the budget). After failing to sway any votes, he may not be so kind and gentle next time.

Hypocrisy doesn’t matter . The public could easily spot the double standards that were in force, but that didn’t change any votes, just as it hasn’t in the past. In the same Armed Services Committee that voted against Tower for conflicts of interest in accepting money from defense contractors for private consulting are members who, according to Common Cause, have accepted thousands of dollars from defense contractors as political contributions. Some of the same senators who wagged a finger at Tower for personal indiscretions have been known to dally a bit, too. That’s why this fight was so uncomfortable.

In sharp contrast to Tower, Bush’s second choice for defense is known as a man of high honor with a wide circle of friends. Even reporters see Dick Cheney as a straight-shooter, recalling that despite his solid voting record for the GOP, he publicly faulted Reagan for mismanagement in the Iran-Contra affair and last year said that if it had been his choice, he would not have selected Dan Quayle as vice president. A hawk on defense, Cheney is certain to shoot the rapids of confirmation in near-record time.

Where then does the Tower struggle leave Washington’s rules of the road? It is likely that it will soon come back to haunt Jim Wright over his own ethics: House Republicans have been licking their chops at the prospect of toppling the House Speaker with some of the same arguments used against Tower. But beyond Wright, it will make less of a difference than commonly supposed. The White House can still win confirmation of its nominees--as long as it plays by the old rules of the Senate.


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