Tower's Interest In Defense Post Goes Back Years

Posted: December 17, 1988

WASHINGTON — Hours after the 1980 Iranian hostage-rescue mission failed, a disconsolate and quietly furious Sen. John Tower sat brooding in his office hideaway.

After reporters found him, he stepped into the corridor for a brief comment. "Never again," he swore. "Never again."

Tower played a key role in keeping that pledge during President Reagan's first term, leading the charge to increase military spending by 40 percent as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee between 1981 and 1984.

But secretary of defense was the post he craved. He had discussed the job with Reagan in 1980 before the president-elect selected Caspar W. Weinberger, and he watched unhappily as Weinberger stayed on long into Reagan's second term, which began as Tower retired from the Senate after 23 years.

Yesterday, after weeks of swirling rumors that his business and personal background made him unfit for the Pentagon's top post, John Goodwin Tower, a Methodist minister's son from rural and poor East Texas, got the job.

"I want to serve," Tower said. "I think I am peculiarly suited to serve in this particular capacity."


Introduced by President-elect Bush, he declined to talk about specific weapons or budget cuts he would seek. But he did say that he would not advocate any significant cut in U.S. troop strength in Europe, and that some weapons systems may have to be killed.

In remarks just before the election, Tower said the Pentagon bureaucracy must be streamlined: "You've got layers and layers of bureaucacy in the Defense Department that need to be stripped away." He also has advocated budgeting on a two-year basis, instead of annually, and signing contracts for weapons for more than a year at a time, both of which would save money.

Tower associates this week acknowledged that his announced goal of setting a military-spending strategy is an "implicit criticism" of the Reagan administration's management of the Defense Department, which critics said lacked a coherent plan to guide its spending.

"John Tower's a true hawk - and a true hawk wants defense reform," one of Tower's closest aides said. "There's been an effort to portray him as a new Weinberger dressed in Saville Row clothes, but that's not true - there will be budget cuts and weapons killed."

Tower, 63, hardly fits the expected mold for a veteran Texas senator or defense chief. At 5-foot-5, with beady eyes and slicked-back hair, he seems out of place in his handsomely tailored British suits.


Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate Republican leader and ex-White House chief of staff, remembered seeing Tower on television for the first time when Baker was a young lawyer in Knoxville, Tenn. "I thought if he could get elected from Texas, I bet I could get elected from Tennessee," Baker recalled.

Tower, a chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve, goes to the Pentagon destined to make enemies. Unlike Weinberger, he will be spreading budget pain - not fiscal windfalls - among the military services. Critics note that that will be a strange role for Tower, who argued ceaselessly and forcefully for increased military spending during his Senate career.

The increasing budget pressures have convinced both Bush and Tower to adopt a more moderate approach than Reagan on plans to build a "Star Wars" missile shield. Although Reagan wanted it deployed as soon as possible, Tower and Bush enraged some supporters of the Strategic Defense Initiative during GOP platform deliberations last summer when they argued against specifying a date for its construction. "You might jeopardize the program if you start deployment too quick," he said.

Tower served in the Navy in World War II and entered national politics in 1960, when he ran a losing Senate race against Lyndon B. Johnson, who was on the Texas ballot both as a Senate and vice presidential candidate.


When Johnson quit the Senate, Democrat William A. Blakley was appointed to succeed him, but Tower beat Blakley by 8,000 votes in a 1961 special election, becoming the first Texas Republican elected to the U.S. Senate. At 35, he was the body's youngest member. He would go on to win re-election three times, each by a narrow margin.

In the Senate he was a conservative's conservative. He was the first senator to endorse his colleague, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, for president in 1964. He was a champion of anti-union right-to-work laws, and he opposed busing to achieve school integration.

He was a ferocious critic of the Soviet Union, and he contended that the United States had allowed its defense to crumble during the 1970s while the Soviet buildup continued relentlessly. He and other Republicans on the Armed Services Committee played a key role in the Senate's refusal to ratify the 1979 SALT II nuclear arms treaty.

After leaving the Senate, he returned to Texas to teach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He then became a consultant, advising LTV, Martin Marietta, Rockwell International and other major defense companies on business stategies.

A short time later, he was named an arms control negotiator in Geneva, where he concentrated on reduction of long-range nuclear weapons. He left the post after 14 months because it was "boring," according to an aide.


In November 1986, Reagan chose Tower to head a commission investigating the Iran-contra affair. In its final report, issued in February 1987, the panel blamed the arms-for-hostages dealing in part on Reagan's laid-back management style, although it said little about any Bush role in the scandal.

Tower's marriage to Lou Bullington, the organist at his father's church, ended in divorce in 1976. They had three daughters. A year later, he married attorney Lilla Burt Cummings, the sister of international arms dealer Sam Cummings. The couple had one son.

They were divorced last year, after a legal battle in which she alleged that Tower had committed "marital misconduct" and had had affairs during their 10-year marriage. Tower's response to the charges was sealed by agreement of both parties.

Tower has said he was faithful to Lilla during their marriage, aides said this week, although he has dated since their divorce became final. Tower also says he has curtailed the drinking that marked his early Senate years.

When the outspoken Tower returns to center stage after a four-year absence, he will have to start weighing more carefully what he says in public.

During GOP platform deliberations in August, he sharply criticized the Air Force's A-10 attack plane. "I wouldn't want my son flying in one of those damn things because it's a flying coffin," he said.

After years of waiting, he will get his chance to ground the A-10s next month.

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