Is This Goodbye?

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After a month as President, George Bush had his first chance to make a splash on the world scene. But as he began a series of one-on-one meetings with some of the foreign leaders who went to Japan for the funeral of Emperor Hirohito, Bush suffered a slap from which not even the 6,800 miles between Washington and Tokyo could remove the sting. Disregarding fervent pleas by the President, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 11 to 9 along strict party lines to reject his nomination of former Senator John Tower to be Secretary of Defense. The main reason: Democrats on the committee said they could not accept the Administration's claims that Tower had shaken the excessive drinking habits he displayed in the 1970s.

Bush, for whom loyalty is close to a religion, quickly announced that he would carry the fight to the Senate floor. A vote by the full chamber may take place this week, assuming Tower does not take the White House off the hook by withdrawing. Considering that the Democrats hold a 55-to-45 majority -- and that, for all the sanctimonious clucking about Tower's personal habits, last week's vote was overtly partisan -- Bush is likely to suffer a second and perhaps more damaging loss.

Even if, against all odds, Tower squeaks through to confirmation, he will be seriously damaged. As Pentagon boss, his effectiveness would be hampered by having to deal with a hostile Senate Armed Services Committee whose chairman, Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, had led the battle against him.

It was difficult to see how Bush could emerge a winner from the Tower fiasco. Whatever the outcome, his personal and political judgment has once again been called into question. He insisted on appointing Tower, a longtime political ally, over the objections of aides who knew the nominee's vulnerabilities. The decision was all too reminiscent of Bush's selection of Dan Quayle, who as Vice President still comes across to many people as a lightweight. Other debatable appointments were those of Boyden Gray, the ethics chief with ethical problems of his own, and chief of staff John Sununu, ! an abrasive former New Hampshire Governor untrained in the ways of Washington. Sununu was insisting "we've got the votes" to confirm Tower over the powerful Nunn's opposition, a boast echoed by other White House officials only a day before the committee vote. Bush's political judgment was no better. It was the President who proclaimed last Tuesday that an FBI report had "gunned down" the allegations of heavy drinking and womanizing by Tower.

Bush's widely touted "honeymoon" with Congress, already endangered by his vagueness on the budget, was ending sooner than that of any new President in recent memory. Though the President cannot get anything done without the cooperation of at least some members of the Democratic congressional majorities, the task of wooing them will now be harder. Within the Administration, the absence of a Secretary of Defense able to assert the Pentagon's view will prolong the review of foreign and national-security problems that Bush insists on completing before he makes major international- policy moves.

The Administration's lack of momentum is already causing it to fall behind events in several regions. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's trip to the Middle East last week was part of a skillful diplomatic campaign aimed at giving Moscow a major voice in the region. In Panama, General Fred Woerner, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, issued an uncharacteristically public complaint that Washington has no real policy toward that country. In Asia, the focus of Bush's efforts last week, China and Viet Nam are negotiating a settlement in Kampuchea with almost no input from Washington. In Western Europe, allies beguiled by Mikhail Gorbachev's promise to reduce Soviet conventional forces wonder how far to modernize their own military power, and the U.S. has been unable to give them much guidance.

The appearance of sluggishness overseas was compounded at home when the Federal Reserve Bank raised the discount rate a half point, to 7%. The move was a clear sign that the Fed, frightened by recent indicators, does not believe the new Administration's rosy assertion that inflation can be held in check without higher interest rates.

Under different circumstances, Bush's Asian trip might have been the start of a more vigorous diplomacy. As it was, the President appeared likely to accomplish no more than he did at the innumerable foreign funerals he attended as Vice President. During only two days in Japan, Bush scheduled 19 meetings with Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries ranging from France to Saudi Arabia to Singapore. But since he was unprepared to get into matters of substance, many of the meetings lasted only 15 to 25 minutes, including opening pleasantries and time for translation. In a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, Bush refrained from discussing in detail such key topics as trade and sharing the defense burden. In China, where Bush stopped Saturday and Sunday, his visit mostly renewed friendships dating back to his residence there as U.S. envoy in the mid-1970s. The entire basis of the relationship between the U.S. and China, which was founded on mutual distrust of the Soviet Union, is changing as Gorbachev prepares to visit Beijing in May for a summit with Deng Xiaoping. Yet there was no indication that Bush spelled out American rethinking of where the relationship goes from here. Nor was he prepared to touch on any ticklish trade and security issues in a six-hour visit to South Korea on Monday before winging home.

Asked about these problems, the White House invariably replies blandly that they are "under review." Supposedly, the Administration is formally reconsidering some 30 issues, including general policy toward whole regions (the Middle East, Central America) and such narrow questions as whether the U.S. should help Japan build its own fighter plane rather than buy an American design. But the reviews are going slowly, and the absence of a Pentagon chief to give military input could stretch them out for additional weeks or even months. Meanwhile, the rush of events may not wait. Said a State Department official: "We are going to pay a big price for sticking with Tower."

The price may not be confined to the Department of Defense. Senior White House officials began to speculate about whether chief of staff Sununu can survive in his post. Coming from a state dominated by Republicans, Sununu has failed to appreciate that in Washington it is necessary to deal with Democrats too. In the Tower case, he underrated the power of Sam Nunn, the owlish Democrat who has established such a reputation for disinterested expertise on military policy that he can take nearly all of his party with him on any vote on defense matters. Sununu compounded the trouble by turning over most of the pro-Tower campaigning to aides led by Frederick McClure, who landed the job of White House congressional liaison only after two other candidates declined to work for Sununu. McClure is a former Tower aide who proved curiously unaware of the Senate's real opinion of his former boss.

After the vote, the White House went on a binge of finger-pointing. Some Bush aides blamed the stunning defeat on ex-Tower aides who, they said, had been lobbying ineptly on Capitol Hill without proper supervision. The Tower men scoffed back that they had been watched closely all the way by Sununu. Said one: "Sununu has been in on all the major decisions." But all sides agreed on the real villain: Sam Nunn. Several accused the chairman of deciding secretly two weeks ago that Tower had to go and then browbeating his Democratic colleagues into a party-line vote. But that claim underplayed the qualms of some Republican Senators. John Warner, the ranking G.O.P. member on the committee, decided in the end to support Tower for two reasons: Bush wanted him for the job, and Warner wanted to secure his own political future.

Longer range, Bush is running a risk of subtly and unintentionally undermining his Administration. A primal commandment for new Presidents, particularly those faced with a Congress controlled by the opposition party: Thou shalt avoid early defeats. The opening days are the time when Congress and the public -- and foreign leaders -- are sizing up the new man. The perceptions they form early are likely to color their view of the President throughout his term.

Though Tower himself and Sununu helped engineer this debacle, Bush is also to blame. His insecurities and a stubborn streak make him leery of admitting outsiders, especially people who have independent followings, into his inner circle. Most new Presidents display this flaw to some extent, but Bush has it worse than, say, Ronald Reagan, who eight years ago put together an effective team that mixed old friends and talented people he barely knew, some staunchly conservative, others not. In contrast, says a former Bush adviser who played a large role in the transition, Bush "always asked, 'Is he or she really on the team?' " In selecting Quayle, for example, Bush did not want a running mate with a significant constituency of his own, and he made the decision without heeding the counsel of politically savvy advisers. Sununu too was a highly personal choice: he had little Washington experience, but Bush had come to rely on him heavily during the 1988 primaries and in formulating the Republican platform.

Tower is a friend of much longer standing. The Texan's 1961 success in becoming the first G.O.P. Senator from the Lone Star State since Reconstruction helped inspire Bush, then an oil executive, to think that a Republican could win a statewide race. (That feat eluded Bush, who sandwiched two terms in the House between two losing bids for the Senate.) Tower was one of the first senior Republicans to declare for Bush in 1988, and he campaigned tirelessly for the Vice President. In short, he passed the loyalty test, which Bush regards as all important, with top marks, and he wanted the job of Secretary of Defense at a time when no other Bush intimate did.

Oddly enough, Bush seemed unconcerned about stories of Tower's boozing and wenching, though he must have heard them; anyone who knew his way around Washington in the past 20 years could hardly avoid them. What did worry the President was Tower's free-spending reign as Armed Services chairman, when he played a key role in Reagan's $2.2 trillion military buildup. Could a man with that record carry out the brutal crackdown on military spending that budget deficits make inevitable? Tower's opponents within the Bush transition team spread stories that it was looking for a strong administrator to be No. 2 man at the Pentagon and that such a person would be nominated along with Tower as a team. That immediately downgraded Tower. After all, the other Cabinet nominees had been chosen individually.

The search for a No. 2 held up Tower's nomination for weeks. So did the requisite FBI check. The agency concluded that the many tales about Tower's affairs with women, even if true, posed no threat to national security. Drinking was something else: FBI agents asked more than 100 people if they had seen Tower drinking, what he was drinking, how much he was drinking, and so on. By the time Tower's long-delayed nomination was announced, just before Christmas, his sex life and drinking habits were already being publicly debated.

Still, the White House foresaw no trouble. Bush and his aides counted on Tower's status as a senior member of the Senate, earned during four terms, to smother all doubts among the other club members. But they made two salient mistakes: 1) they failed to appreciate that Tower's four-year chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee was not entirely an asset, that his dictatorial manner had alienated some members; 2) they greatly underestimated the power of Chairman Nunn.

At first the nomination appeared to be sailing through. But in early February renewed stories about Tower's drinking and womanizing became so prevalent that the committee demanded a new FBI check. Another problem, a serious one, developed during the hearings: major defense contractors paid Tower $750,000 during 2 1/2 years in which he was out of office, and Tower's explanations of what he did to earn that money were vague and unsatisfactory. Even apart from questions of conflict of interest, Tower's actions tweaked congressional sensitivity over the "revolving door" through which defense contractors and Pentagon officials move easily, fostering an unhealthy coziness that distorts what should be arm's-length relationships.

In the end, it was not any one factor that brought Tower down in the committee but a combination of four: allegations of drinking, stories about womanizing, doubts about his relations with defense contractors, and resentment of his high-handed running of the committee. Democrats chose to single out the alcohol problem in speeches explaining their no votes Thursday night. Tower admitted to the committee that he drank excessively in the 1970s, but said he now has no more than a glass or two of wine a day. Yet he never sought help to overcome the problem, a lapse that bothered Nunn in particular. Moreover, stories of heavy imbibing much later than the 1970s were coming to light even last week. The Houston Post reported that four people questioned by the FBI said they had seen Tower drunk and prancing with young women at a Dallas nightclub last July. A Senator might brush off any or even all of the stories as impossible to pin down; John Warner of Virginia, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, dismissed them as a "cobweb of fact, fiction and fantasy." But to the Democrats the sheer number of such stories, whatever their individual veracity, was unhappily impressive. It seems likely that some of Tower's Senate colleagues have seen him drunk, though none would ever admit it publicly for fear of being on the receiving end of a similar accusation. It is noteworthy that Republican Senators who defended Tower last week would not say flatly they had never seen him drunk; they asserted instead that they had never seen him "unable to function," or some similar locution.

Were the censorious Democrats being hypocritical? They were certainly holding Tower to a higher standard than they would apply to other Government officers -- or to themselves. Yet those standards have gradually been rising even for lesser offices. Quite aside from the erotic misadventures of Gary Hart, once powerful Congressmen Wilbur Mills and Wayne Hays helped bring themselves down in the 1970s through drinking and sexual behavior that would have been winked at in any earlier decade.

More important, for a handful of posts such as Secretary of State or Defense, CIA director and National Security Adviser (and, of course, President), a higher standard is legitimate. A Secretary of Education or Labor, or for that matter a Senator or Congressman, who overindulges is unlikely to damage the nation if a sudden crisis breaks. A Secretary of Defense or CIA director who lacks a clear mind, steady nerves and cool judgment could cause a disaster. As Nunn said just before the Armed Services Committee vote Thursday night, "I cannot in good conscience vote to put an individual at the top of the chain of command when his history of excessive drinking is such that he would not be selected to command a missile wing, a SAC ((Strategic Air Command)) bomber squadron or a Trident missile submarine."

Bush, at least initially, refused to admit defeat on Tower and stubbornly insisted that his nomination be debated before the full Senate. On the morning after the committee turned thumbs down on him, Tower reported to work at his temporary office at the Pentagon. In a meeting convened in Tokyo shortly before the committee vote, Bush forbade his aides even to speculate on possible successors to the Pentagon job. If any violators of that rule could be identified, the President declared, "I would like to kick some serious hide." Though a barrage of calls on Tower's behalf from Quayle in the White House failed to swing the committee vote, the President planned to re-enter the fight as soon as he returned from Asia and to meet with as many as ten Democrats who might succumb to personal wooing.

The odds are poor. To begin with, the White House would have to retain all 45 Republican votes. It might do so, but with difficulty; at least some Republicans are likely to be torn between party loyalty and their dislike of Tower. Then, presuming all 100 Senators voted, Bush would have to win over at least five Democrats to produce a 50-50 tie, which Vice President Quayle could break in Tower's favor. That also looks like a long shot. Aides at week's end could produce the names of only three or four Democratic Senators susceptible to conversion. Besides Tower's fellow Texan Lloyd Bentsen and Charles Robb of * Virginia, the list included such unlikely possibilities as Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. White House aides point out that Tower cast one of five votes against the censure of Dodd's father Thomas, who was charged with misuse of campaign funds when the two men served in the Senate during the 1960s. They suggest that Kennedy might be brought around because he too has been victimized by rumors and innuendo, much of it spread by Republicans. But if anyone can bring every last Democratic Senator along, it is Sam Nunn. Before the Armed Services Committee vote, he persuaded Richard Shelby of Alabama, one of the most conservative Democratic Senators, to join his more liberal colleagues in rejecting Tower. The nominee, said Shelby, had already been "irreparably damaged" by the suspicions aroused by the hearings.

Considering how Tower has been weakened, it was difficult to see why he was stubbornly clinging to his diminishing hopes of getting the job. Some prominent Republicans at week's end were urging him to spare Bush further embarrassment. "Even if he wins, what has he won?" they asked. It was a difficult question to answer, far more difficult than the question of what Bush stands to lose: not just a Secretary of Defense, but the all-important impression that he is in command of a government with sound judgment, creative ideas and lots of momentum.