John Tower's Hesitation Blues

  • When former Texas Senator John Tower sat down for a job interview with George Bush in mid-November, he had a surprise for the President-elect: a five-point plan for cleaning up the mess at the Pentagon. Since the plan came from, of all people, the hawkish Tower, Bush was startled -- and impressed -- by what he heard. "It was the exact opposite of what they expected him to say," said an adviser who helped Tower prepare. According to Tower's associates, Bush declared near the end of the meeting that he would announce his choice for Secretary of Defense after Thanksgiving.

    More than a week later, Bush still had not filled the top Pentagon job. Aides to both the President-elect and the former Senator said Bush was postponing a decision until someone with strong management credentials could be found to serve as Tower's deputy. But as reports circulated that Tower had been a paid consultant for several weapons makers and had a reputation for drinking, the drawn-out negotiations became embarrassing. "This thing is beginning to stink," admitted a Bush aide. Nearly all the signals indicated that Bush would eventually stand by his fellow Texan. Nevertheless, the hesitation revealed how uneasy the President-elect, his aides and most of official Washington have come to feel about Tower.

    Many Washington insiders have been wondering why the former Republican Senator was in line for the spot in the first place. Tower, whose slicked-back hair and double-breasted pinstripe suits sometimes give him the look of a Mafia capo, had several strikes against him. Having been Senate Armed Services Committee chairman during the first four years of the Reagan buildup, he seemed ill-equipped to oversee the Bush slowdown. On the Hill, Tower had a reputation as a man who couldn't say no to a weapons system. He was regarded by his own backers as autocratic and impatient with lesser minds -- a "mean s.o.b." who never got along well with key members of Congress, said a loyal aide.

    But Tower was a cunning legislator who delighted in frustrating congressional liberals and earned the nickname "Ironbutt" for his wait-'em- out negotiating style. Moreover, he wanted the Defense job when few others did. He campaigned for Bush, rushed to Dan Quayle's defense after the Republican Convention, and joined New Hampshire Governor John Sununu's Dukakis-bashing brigade. Tutored by several former aides who now hold top Pentagon, White House and budget-making jobs, Tower wowed Bush during their Nov. 17 meeting and several days later made a similar impression on Sununu, soon to be White House chief of staff, and Secretary of State-designate James Baker.

    Baker and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady nonetheless wanted Bush to name a top deputy whose management skills would signal that the new Administration & is serious about budget cutting. Not many candidates wanted to play second fiddle. Norman Augustine, chief executive officer of Martin Marietta, and Paul O'Neill, CEO of Alcoa, turned down the deputy's job. Republican Senator Pete Wilson of California began whooping it up for Rand Corp. president Donald Rice, whose many qualifications include the fact that he is a close friend and golfing partner of the most influential defense expert in Congress, Democrat Sam Nunn. Rice, who flew to Washington last Wednesday, appeared to have the inside track.

    As the package deal seemed near closure, Tower's stock fell again with reports that he was on retainer to five defense contractors and rumors about his past womanizing and drinking. Conservatives complained that Bush was letting their man twist slowly in the wind. But the President-elect insisted that "nothing is going to shake my view" that Tower should go to the Pentagon. Bush's vice-presidential chief of staff, Craig Fuller, was even more unequivocal: "I know of absolutely no information that has come to us privately or through the press that would in any way disqualify Senator Tower."

    If he survived his difficult passage, Tower would face the most complicated task in the next Administration. Eight years after Reagan expanded the military budget 50%, persistent budget deficits would force Tower to shrink Pentagon accounts by one-fourth of what was planned in fatter times. That means eliminating Navy ships, Army divisions and Air Force fighter aircraft envisioned by Caspar Weinberger in the flush years of the early 1980s -- nearly $200 billion in weapons and research programs over the next four years. Said former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara last week: "The DOD is as close to bankrupt as you can get for a Government agency."

    Tower insisted through aides last week that he was ready to jettison unnecessary weapons and reform Pentagon procurement, but only if Congress would quit meddling with hundreds of weapons and research projects each year. Yet unless Bush can find someone willing to serve as deputy, Tower may never get a chance to put his good intentions to work.