John Tower still seems a little bitter. The media that covered his confirmation is described in his memoirs as a “lynch mob … waiting beside a rickety wooden tumbrel to take me off to the guillotine.” Other accusers were “old political enemies … publicity seekers, crackpots, and busybodies.” And Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? Let’s just say Tower shouldn’t sit next to Nunn at the next Military-Industrial Complex Christmas party. Nunn is the man who “was piling up the kindling at my feet” before Tower was “burned at the stake.” Tower can barely go a page without hissing at Nunn, using that same tone of voice the Wicked Witch of the West used as she was melting. Nunn was “blinded by ambition”; a coward who becomes “frightened” in political battle; a war-wimp whose military service “was limited to six months of active duty in the Coast Guard, teaching swimming and physical training”; and even a sourpuss. “There is no place for levity in Sam Nunn’s office,” writes Tower, not known himself as Senator Laugh-a-minute.

If you come to this book (Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir by John G. Tower) having only a vague memory of Tower as that nasty little man with black-lacquered hair, you will leave with a clearer impression of his nastiness. John Tower is not easy to like, and his memoirs are filled with ugly bursts of hypocrisy. For example, he spends much time criticizing the media for basing stories on unsubstantiated rumors about his drinking—and then attacks James Exon for having “a reputation” as one of the “most excessive regular boozers in the Senate.”

It hurts, therefore, to admit that as Tower angrily flails at various targets, he scores some impressive direct hits, particularly against the media and a few of his fellow senators. The Tower nomination battle combined elements of several previous media controversies, including intoxicants (a la Judge Douglas Ginsburg); women (Gary Hart); the revolving door (Michael Deaver); and a politicized confirmation process (poor Robert Bork). Tower’s book, an attempt at personal vindication and score-settling, is not exactly a dispassionate analysis of the shifting standards of ethics. But he makes some incisive points and provides a good vehicle for figuring out when the character cops busted down the door without a warrant and when they were being fair.

At the time of the nomination flap, critics of the media’s “new morality” often decried the obsessive focus on “womanizing and drinking.” But these two evils shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath. They are not remotely comparable in seriousness. “Womanizing” may or may not be a character issue that reflects upon treatment of other human beings. Drinking, on the other hand, is not a fuzzy character issue, but a fitness issue, much in the same way a candidate’s stupidity might be. The frantic senatorial and media crusade to discover Tower’s drinking history was entirely proper.

Still, the crusaders had to answer a difficult question: what kind of proof about drinking does one need? Tower’s nomination was going well until Paul Weyrich, the right-wing activist, told the committee he had personally witnessed Tower in an unfortunate “condition—lacking sobriety.” But the puritanical Weyrich wasn’t deemed a reliable judge of such things. Nunn and Senator John Warner, the ranking Republican on the committee, began really paying attention to the drinking issue when Congressman Larry Combest, a former Tower staff aide, described his old boss’s habits in the sixties and seventies. In the words of The Washington Post, Combest told the senators that Tower “consumed a bottle of scotch a night several times a week and … had to be helped out of his detachable shirt collars into bed.” Tower disputes many of the particular incidents that various accusers mentioned, but does concede that he drank “too much” in the early seventies and later cut back.

For his defense, Tower and his allies adopted what could be called the Lampshade Standard. A public official’s drinking habits are not relevant unless they noticeably affect his job performance in some blatant way—e.g., causing him to don a lampshade during a Senate debate on arms control. “He did his job; never showed up drunk on the Senate floor,” one conservative told a Tower associate. Combest, realizing he had inadvertently hurt his friend, sought to clarify the issue by saying that he was “unaware of any instance when Senator Tower’s judgment or ability to render reasonable and cogent decisions on matters of import was impaired owing to alcohol abuse or dependency.” In other words, no drunkenness when it really mattered.

The problem with the job performance standard is that if Tower was an alcoholic he could have been stone sober during office hours and still had his judgment and temperament somewhat impaired by liquor. That’s the nature of alcoholism. Chemical dependency on alcohol changes the functioning of the brain continuously, not just when a person is drunk. And just what exactly are the office hours at Defense during a war, anyway?

Nunn created a new standard for judging drinking. He looked for evidence not of whether drinking affected Tower’s job performance but of whether Tower had been an alcoholic. Nunn concluded there had been “a pattern of the abuse in the seventies [that] made incidents in the eighties assume more significance.” Then, the question became not, “Does Tower drink occasionally now,” but, “Did Tower ever address his problem?” Nunn’s conclusion: “I could find no point of where [the pattern] was recognized and dealt with, and that was all the way up to the late eighties.” In other words, an alcoholic cannot cure himself by drinking a bit less; he has to stop and face his problem. So the fact that Tower continued to drink, even if not quite as much, was damning. Nunn may have developed this more inclusive—and sensible—standard merely as an excuse to get Tower, or he may have been influenced by something from his past: Tower notes that Nunn worked for several years on the staff of Senator Herman Talmadge without realizing that Talmadge was an alcoholic, perhaps convincing Nunn that the Lampshade Standard was unrealistic.

Altogether unreliable sources

But Tower has every right to fume over some of the other techniques used during his confirmation hearings. The most commonly misused standard in ethics debates is the “appearance of impropriety” test. In the discussions about the Keating Five, Tower, and other scandals, ostensibly scrupulous ethics monitors have said that a particular legislator’s actions weren’t improper per se but created the appearance of wrongdoing. “The perception is there,” John Glenn said in arguing against Tower’s nomination on the floor of the Senate. “The perception [of a drinking problem] is in the press. I cannot verify [it], but it is a perception that is out.” Glenn’s remarks were truly scurrilous because he repeated the charges without knowing whether they were true, simply on the grounds that some people thought they were. If this standard were applied against Glenn, a Keating Fiver, he would get censured for sure.

The Senate Armed Services Committee added the “public confidence” corollary to the “appearance of impropriety” test. Bad appearance matters, quite aside from the truth, because it damages public respect. After investigating whether Tower gave defense contractors classified information he obtained while a U.S. arms control negotiator, the committee concluded: “The committee has no evidence that Senator Tower provided his clients with classified information. In the committee’s judgment, however, this situation created the appearance of using public office for private gain and casts doubt on his ability to command public confidence in the integrity of the system.” This argument is like a criminal court judge saying, “We have no proof that this man is a burglar, but the popular perception says that he is, so the public will lose faith in this court if we do not convict him.”

The appearance test should be used only when misdeeds are so hard to prove that one must look at secondary evidence. After all, the appearance isn’t wrong because it looks bad but because it is a reasonable indicator that something bad actually happened. A smoking gun isn’t damning because smoke is dangerous but because it hints that a bullet was fired.

With good reason, Tower complains bitterly about the chain reaction that turns rumor into legitimate news. Time after time, someone made a charge, the FBI investigated it, and then the fact that the FBI was looking into it gave the charge credence—even if it was found to be untrue. Consider this report in the Los Angeles Times: “Tower, according to unsubstantiated stories, is a womanizer and has a drinking problem. The tales were inspired by Tower’s recent divorce. One particularly wild—and wholly unfounded—story has Tower barred from Australia because of a drunken spree there.” And L.A. Times editor Shelby Coffey’s mother wears army boots, a wholly unreliable source once told me.

Having said all that, I must add: Boy, am I glad John Tower isn’t defense secretary. Not because of “womanizing.” And not primarily because of his drinking, which was troubling, but ultimately not conclusive enough to reject any nominee who was otherwise outstanding. The problem was that Tower was not otherwise outstanding—because of his relationship with the defense industry and his stewardship of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Reagan defense build-up. There was no solid proof Tower did anything illegal when he was a defense consultant after leaving government, but his closeness to the industry makes it doubtful he would have been sufficiently critical of contractors’ products and claims.

Looking back through the press coverage of the confirmation battle, it is staggering how little attention was given to Tower’s role as chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1985, as the Pentagon and Congress squandered a trillion dollars. Here, the public was ill served by the media’s predilection toward certain types of critical reporting and its avoidance of others. It vigorously pursues “character” issues—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—because they’re fun to write and read about. The press is also good at tracking down corruption because it involves the breaking of predefined rules. Since the rules were written by other people, the media doesn’t have to judge their appropriateness, just whether they were violated. But when it comes to policy dereliction—remember the S&L crisis?—the press finds itself unequipped (who am I to say if a billion dollars should have been spent on that weapons system?), uninterested (covering policy means studying minutiae), or unwilling (no one ever won a Pulitzer for analyzing how a piece of legislation got screwed up).

Tower says he was a military reformer all along. I’m no defense expert, but one statement from his book casts serious doubt on his bona fides: “Waste, fraud, and abuse [in the Pentagon] wouldn’t have amounted to even a billion dollars…. The money was spent well.” Does he honestly believe that the Pentagon has wasted only .05 percent of its budget? The B-1 bomber alone is a waste of $20 billion.

Unwise and consent

Tower feels that an irrational, runaway process chewed him up, ignoring his defense expertise and past service to his country. What’s more, “the rules of ethical conduct are constantly shifting with little or no warning”—and he ticks off the names of senators who drank a lot more than he did, believe you me.

Ethical standards have shifted, but mostly for the better. And while it may be true that the Senate was looking for any reason it could find not to confirm Tower, one must ask why it looked so hard. Given the inherent clubbiness of the Senate, members’ zeal to jump on scraps of evidence leads one to conclude that Tower was a supremely unpopular fellow.

But the best explanation of why so many senators voted against Tower came from Senator Alan Dixon of Illinois, who told Washingtonian magazine that he could only see bucking Democratic party leadership “for someone who you really want in the job, because this is a biggie.” For all the service Tower gave his country, there was a lot wrong with him as a nominee for defense secretary. The Constitution would be more helpful if, instead of having vague language about advise and consent, it said, “By a vote of two-thirds of its Members, Congress may inform a President, ‘Aw, come on—you can do better than that!'”

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.