John Tower takes two glasses of Chianti with dinner, if anyone still cares. He tips the second glass to finish the final sip as he is rising from his chair at the meal’s end.
“I said I’d give it up,” he said earlier, before dinner. “And I would have. I’ve got that much discipline.”
He never had to swear off all alcohol, as he offered to do in a last-ditch effort to save his nomination to be secretary of defense. Two years ago this month, Tower missed by a hair’s breadth--specifically, by three votes in the Senate--the fulfillment of his grandest ambition. The triumphant experience of being nominated proved merely to be the apex of his life’s parabola.
From somewhere on the descending slope he has issued “Consequences,” a memoir that reflects bitterly on his career and its sudden, thorough end.
His Elba is Dallas, where he lives in what he calls his “flat” in the posh Turtle Creek section of town. The high-rise apartment complex is the kind of place that attracts wealthy widows and widowers looking to simplify their lives. A neighbor in the penthouse one floor above him is actress Greer Garson, widow of a Dallas oil man. John Tower, 65, describes himself as “both the youngest and the poorest occupant of this building.”
Recently he consented to see a reporter. First on a Monday, for a visit, then dinner; the next day, a look at his office, then a ride across town to Southern Methodist University for his lecture on national security policy.
That Monday was the second full day of the ground war in the Persian Gulf region, the day allied forces surrounded Kuwait city. For the most part John Tower, along with the rest of the nation, was keeping up with America’s greatest military triumph since World War II by watching it on television.
Sometimes, he confided, he is appalled at the ignorance of the TV personalities explaining the war. In these moments, alone with his stunning view of the Dallas skyline at twilight, he talks back to the screen.
“The level of morality (in the Senate) isn’t any higher than it used to be” he said. “That’s crap.”
Theories of Demise
He is answering Theory One: That John Tower got caught in the crack between two Ages of Ethics.
Theory Two: John Tower was the victim of a vicious partisan fight between a new President and a Senate controlled by the opposite party.
Theory Three: John Tower made too many enemies while he was in the Senate.
Theory Four: John Tower was a threat to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the committee that rejected him.
Theory Five: John Tower--for reasons of character or liquor consumption --couldn’t be trusted with his finger on “the button.”
None of these versions of why he was turned down truly excludes any of the others, but partisans on either side tend to cling fiercely to one, perhaps two of these explanations.
Tower favors the Sam Nunn theory. “It all hinged,” he said, “on one man.” His book is a catalogue of what Tower sees as Nunn’s sins, Nunn’s duplicity, Nunn’s blind ambition, Nunn’s timidity, Nunn’s inexperience, Nunn’s priggishness, Nunn’s willingness to take the word of Tower’s bitter ex-wife, Nunn’s “obsessive” concern with Tower’s drinking.
He is especially bitter at the respect Nunn commands, even from Republicans, as the Senate’s leading expert on military affairs. Tower frankly admits that the book is, at least in part, an effort to cast the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the light of an ordinary politician pursuing ordinary, selfish ends.
“He had to really break some arms to get the votes he needed,” said Tower, “and, after all, I only lost by three votes. . . . I know that some Democrats agonized over this. I talked to several of them over the phone. They said: ‘I’d like to vote for you, John. I wish I could, but I have to follow Sam. I have to follow Sam.’ ”
There is nothing surprising about Tower’s anger. It was an unforgettable spectacle, watching a Senate committee ponder, interrogate and finally reject the man who was its chairman just five years earlier. Two years before his nomination, in early 1987, had been powerful enough, respected enough, to serve as the kind of totemic character Washington relies on in a crisis of faith. President Reagan had appointed him to chair the special board investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, and Tower had earned high marks for putting partisanship aside to supervise a report that was highly critical of Reagan.
“I was a hero,” Tower now says dryly, “when I was criticizing the President.”
Tower’s nomination hung in the balance for three long months in 1989, as the White House bobbled away its leverage in the matter through inattention and reluctance to cross Nunn. For week upon week, new allegations surfaced and somehow leaked onto the capital grapevine from raw FBI files.
People phoned the committee with tips, which were duly passed on for FBI investigation. There was one about Tower dancing on a piano with a Russian ballerina. There was one about him chasing a secretary around a desk in Geneva, where Tower was chief strategic arms control negotiator after he left the Senate.
Those who followed the drama began to refer to each new allegation (I saw Tower drunk in such-and-such a place) as “sightings,” as if he were a UFO.
“I went through a 90-day character-assassination campaign,” he said. “No public figure has been held up so much to scrutiny and has been so publicly pilloried as I have, without ever having been accused of anything very, very serious.”
And rarely has a public figure struck back with so much vitriol. Never has a former senator spoken as Tower does about former colleagues. His book, ghostwritten by Roger Gittines, is in the sulfurous league with the writings of Donald T. Regan and Nancy Reagan.
The former Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Tower writes, “has a tendency to resort to a flatulent indignation, which alternately amuses and annoys his Senate colleagues.”
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), he observes, is “not the brightest guy in Washington.”
Of Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) he writes: “Exon drinks, and drinks heavily . . . a genuine boozer.”
John W. Warner (R-Va.) is “painfully slow on the uptake,” a man who “does not even know when he is being set up and used.” As ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, it was Warner who should have been twisting arms on Tower’s behalf and controlling the damage as time went on.
“John suffers from a debilitating political weakness: He wants to be liked by everyone,” Tower writes. “His passivity and lack of focus had been handicaps since the beginning of the confirmation process.”
Of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) Tower’s book says: “He is the Senate bully, quick to attack with harsh and personal invective. . . . He is a true demagogue . . . a study in arrogance and pomposity. . . .”
It is not only in print that Tower makes these observations. He speaks highly of some former colleagues, but manages to write off others in a way that is both offhand and acid.
Tennessee’s Al Gore, he said, is “a showboat.”
He regards the elderly Quentin N. Burdick (D-N.D.) as “pretty much out of it now.”
In the face of Tower’s roundhouse punches, the senators in question are, for the most part, giving back the worst treatment they know: silence. It is the silence accorded yesterday’s news.
“No comment,” said Nunn’s press secretary.
“He’s not said anything about the book at all,” Exon’s press secretary said of his boss.
“He didn’t have any comment on it,” a Hollings aide said.
There, this dismissive silence strains to say. Didn’t we tell you?
“It conjures up some unpleasant memories,” Tower said of the experience of having written and discussing the book. “But it’s not so bad, because I’m telling my side of the story, and I have the forum all to myself.”
His office is just a few minutes’ drive from his apartment. “We call ourselves consultants,” he said, “but we don’t really do a whole lot of consulting. We do a lot of networking, joint-venturing, promoting joint ventures. Developing some European trade opportunities.”
Including support staff, four people work at John Tower & Associates--five if you include the accountant who comes in on Fridays to do the books. One of them is Tower’s middle daughter, Marian, whom he fondly addresses as “Pooh.”
Behind his desk hangs a framed replica of the flag that flew over the Alamo. On the desk are a dun-colored blotter, “in” and “out” boxes containing a few magazines and papers, and a stack of plain white memo pads headed:
John Tower & Assoc., Inc.
John G. Tower
Chairman of the Board
Life Goes On
Tower’s three daughters live nearby. He remains good friends with his first wife, Lou, and has an active social life. On this particular morning he is pictured in formal dress on the society page of the Dallas Times Herald.
This is his life. He comes in at 9:30 or so and leaves by 4:30. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings a trainer comes to his apartment and coaxes him to exercise.
In December, Dorothy Heyser, the woman who stood at his side through the Senate hearings and who is described in his book as his “girlfriend,” married another man. “I’d prefer not to talk about it,” he said. “It’s very, very personal.”
John Tower is on the board of several corporations and of the Maxwell Fund for the Development of Eastern Europe. He is chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a small group invented to advise the President on the quality of the intelligence he is getting, which meets in Washington every other month. He is chairman of the Armed Forces Journal, but, basically, he said, “I have very, very little to do with the military any more. Or with defense.”