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Tower, John Goodwin

(b. 29 Sept. 1925 in Houston, Texas; d. 5 April 1991 near Brunswick, Georgia), Republican senator from Texas and the first cabinet appointee by an incoming president ever to be rejected by the Senate.

Tower was one of two children of Joe Z. Tower, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Beryl Goodwin, a homemaker. After attending public schools in Houston and Beaumont, Texas, Tower enlisted in the navy in June 1943, served with an amphibious gunboat in the western Pacific during World War II, and was discharged as a seaman first class. Like many servicemen still in their twenties, Tower took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights and attended Southwestern State University (now Southwestern University) in Georgetown, Texas, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1948. While an undergraduate Tower had been active in the Kappa Sigma social fraternity on campus, and thus began a lifelong association with the Greek-letter organization. After graduating he served briefly as a radio announcer and also was a life insurance agent.

Short of stature (he was five feet, five inches tall), Tower married Lou Bullington and in time they became the parents of three daughters. Not interested in following in his father’s footsteps, Tower ultimately decided on a college teaching career. A conservative Republican in a state where Democrats flourished, Tower joined the faculty of Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1951 to teach political science classes. To enhance his credentials, he received a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University in 1953, after briefly attending the London School of Economics and Political Science (1952-1953).

Gregarious and available as a speaker for civic clubs and school events, Tower became active in Republican politics at the local level and ran for the state legislature in 1954. He lost, but he impressed state party officials with his campaign tactics and affable personality. In 1956 Tower was a delegate to the Republican National Nominating Convention, and again in 1960.

Lyndon B. Johnson was allowed to seek reelection for senator and also run for vice president on the 1960 Democratic presidential ticket. The election of John F. Kennedy and Johnson in November 1960 (Johnson also had won his senate seat) created a vacancy, which necessitated a special election. Tower had run against Johnson as the Republican “sacrificial lamb” and polled an impressive 41 percent of the votes. In April 1961 he gained a runoff spot in the special election, and in May he won a six-year Senate term by a 10,000-vote margin.

The first Republican senator elected from Texas since Reconstruction, from the outset the feisty Tower made his presence in the Senate known. By 1965 he had sought and gained a place as a minority member on the Senate Armed Services committee, where he began to stake out a position as an expert on military matters. He also wore suits (ordered, some wags said, from Bond Street tailors in London) and custom-made shirts with white collars and blue or striped cloth with French cuffs. On the Washington social scene, he often attended parties where he stated to waiters his preference for a particular brand of Scotch whiskey.

When Senator Barry Goldwater sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Tower was the first fellow senator to endorse his colleague. He campaigned for the Arizona senator and defended Goldwater’s belligerent remarks concerning the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Goldwater lost, but Tower entrenched his reputation as a “hard-liner” who favored more funding for the military. He also opposed most of President Johnson’s civil rights and welfare legislation.

In 1966 Tower was reelected and moved up in the Armed Services committee until he was the ranking minority member. He cultivated his ties with Texas industrialists and in 1971 was elected the national president (Worthy Grand Master) of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, which had many wealthy, conservative, and influential members in Texas.

Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1972 presidential election did not bring Senate control to his party, but Tower was again elected to a six-year term and served on important committees—Armed Services, Commerce, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Banking. When demands for equal rights for women were recognized by Congress with Title IX antidiscrimination legislation, Tower pushed through an amendment that granted college fraternities and sororities an exemption from provisions aimed at gender discrimination. At the time, a Greek-letter official said, “John Tower has saved the fraternity-sorority system from chaos and destruction.” In 1976 Tower divorced his wife of twenty-four years and within a year married Lilla Burt Cummings; they had no children.

After Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 Republicans took control of the Senate, and Tower became chairman of the Armed Services committee. Meanwhile, Tower made no secret of his desire to serve in Reagan’s cabinet as secretary of defense. When he was passed over twice, as a loyal Republican, Tower voted for Reagan’s nominees. But his feelings were obviously hurt, and he decided to retire from the Senate after twenty-four years of service in 1984.

Tower returned to Texas and established a lucrative consulting business aimed at serving defense contractors. President Reagan appointed him to serve as a U.S. delegate to the arms-control session in Geneva in 1985 and persuaded Tower to lobby in the Senate corridors for passage of a treaty with the USSR banning medium-range nuclear missiles. Reagan also appointed Tower to head a commission set up to investigate charges of scandal in the administration’s handling of the arms swap in Iran, which also involved the Contra forces in Nicaragua that Reagan had strongly supported. The Tower Commission’s final report of what came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal was critical of the White House staff but held Reagan blameless. Tower was divorced again in 1987 after negative publicity concerning his drinking and partying habits.

When George Bush of Texas ran for the presidency in 1988, Tower endorsed his fellow Texan and served as an adviser on military affairs. Reporters correctly speculated that, if elected, Bush would name Tower as his secretary of defense; and in March 1989 the Senate subcommittee held hearings on Tower’s nomination, with Democratic senator Sam Nunn of Georgia in the chair. After highly publicized hearings, where charges of excessive drinking and other misdemeanors were brought against Tower (and angrily denied), the subcommittee voted unfavorably on the nomination, eleven to nine. The full Senate concurred, with a vote of forty-seven yeas and fifty-three nays, thus rejecting Tower’s nomination.

Angry and hurt, Tower felt betrayed by his former Senate colleagues. He knew that it was a historic rejection, the only time in history that an appointment from an incoming president had been rejected by the Senate. He became a Washington consultant for defense contractors but nursed resentment of the unfavorable publicity and the denial of a cabinet post. Tower struck back with a book, Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir, published early in 1991 and mainly concerned with the Senate debacle. The New York Times reviewer summed up the work as “a predictably venomous account of his humiliation.” Several reviewers noted that the book was dedicated to his first wife—“She forgave my transgressions … and made my career possible.”

To promote sales of the book, Tower agreed to attend events arranged by his literary agent. On one of these excursions Tower, accompanied by his daughter, was headed for Sea Island, Georgia, for a book signing party on 5 April 1991 when the twin-engine Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight crashed and burned. All twenty-three people aboard were killed. Tower is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Cemetery in Dallas.

A sketch of Tower’s life, emphasizing his Senate career, is in the Moffett Library archives at Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas. His book Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir (1991) was widely reviewed, including in The Economist (2 Mar. 1991) and London Times Literary Supplement (19 July 1991). A biographical sketch of Tower by George N. Green and John J. Kushma is in Michael Collins and K. E. Henrickson, Jr., eds., Profiles in Power: Twentieth-Century Texansin Washington (1993). Lengthy obituaries of Tower are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 6 Apr. 1991).

Robert Allen Rutland

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