About John Goodwin Tower
John Goodwin Tower (September 29, 1925 – April 5, 1991) was the first Republican United States senator from Texas since Reconstruction. He served from 1961 until his retirement in January 1985, after which time he was appointed as the chairman of the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission that investigated the Iran-Contra Affair. He was George H. W. Bush's nominee for Secretary of Defense in 1989, but he was rejected by the Senate by a vote of 53 to 47.
Early life, education, and military service
Tower was born in Houston to Joe Z. Tower (1898–1970) and Beryl Tower (1898–1990). Joe Tower was a Methodist minister, and John traveled wherever his father was named to pastor a church. He attended public schools in East Texas and graduated in Beaumont, the seat of Jefferson County, in southeast Texas in the spring of 1942.
Tower was active in politics as a child; at the age of thirteen, he passed out handbills for the campaign of liberal Democrat and future U.S. Senator Ralph William Yarborough while Yarborough was running unsuccessfully for attorney general. Yarborough and Tower would later be paired as Texas's Senate delegation, though of opposing political perspectives. He entered Southwestern University in Georgetown (Williamson County near Austin) that same year and met future U.S. President and political opponent Lyndon Baines Johnson on a campus visit while Johnson was the local congressman.
Tower left college in the summer of 1943 to serve in the Pacific Theater during World War II on an LCS(L) amphibious gunboat. He returned to Texas after the war in 1946, discharged as a seaman first class, and completed his undergraduate courses at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, having graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. Tower worked as a radio announcer for a Country music station in Taylor, east of Austin, during college and for some time afterward. Tower, however, remained in the Naval Reserve and achieved the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer, having retired from the military in 1989.
In 1949, he moved to Dallas to take graduate courses at Southern Methodist University and to work part time as an insurance agent. He left SMU in 1951 and entered academia as an assistant professor at Midwestern University (now Midwestern State University) in Wichita Falls. In 1952 and 1953, he pursued graduate coursework at the London School of Economics and conducted field research on the organization of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. His research was presented in his thesis, The Conservative Worker in Britain. He received his Master of Arts degree from SMU in 1953. While a professor at Midwestern University, Tower met Lou Bullington, whom he married in 1952. A California native, Lou was the organist at the Towers' church. She was five years his senior. One of her cousins, Orville Bullington, was the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1932 against former Governor Miriam Ferguson and a leader of the Robert A. Taft forces in Texas in 1952. Orville Bullington was also an uncle by marriage of the Midland Republican figure Frank Kell Cahoon, a Wichita Falls native who was the only Republican in the Texas House of Representatives in the 1965 legislative session.
Family life in Wichita Falls, Texas
John and Lou Tower had three children during their years in Wichita Falls born in three consecutive years: Penny (1954), Marian (1955), and Jeanne (1956). The couple divorced in 1976.
During this same period, Tower established his core political relationships, which were managed in Wichita Falls by Pierce Langford, III, a key figure in the financing of the British offshore pirate radio stations that were created by Don Pierson of Eastland, Texas, between 1964 and 1967. Tower put in an appearance at the offices of Swinging Radio England on Curzon Street in London.
Following his divorce from Lou, who remained single for the remainder of her life, Tower married Lilla Burt Cummings in 1977. The couple separated in 1985 and filed divorce papers on July 2, 1986.
Rise to the Senate
Although reared as a Southern Democrat, Tower became a Republican in college about 1951. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Texas Republican Party; he was an unsuccessful candidate for representative to the Texas Legislature for the 81st district in 1954. He was a delegate to the 1956 Republican National Convention. In the 1956 presidential election, he was the campaign manager for Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 23rd Senatorial District. In 1960, he was chosen by the state convention held in McAllen in Hidalgo County, as the Republican candidate for the United States Senate against Lyndon Johnson. Two other Republicans mentioned for the senatorial nomination, Thad Hutcheson, who had sought Texas' other Senate seat in a special election in 1957, and Bruce Alger, the only Republican congressman from Texas at the time, were both uninterested.
Johnson, the incumbent senator and famous nationwide as the Senate Majority Leader, won the election against Tower. As John F. Kennedy's running mate, Johnson was also seeking the vice presidency in the same election and Tower's campaign slogan was "double your pleasure, double your fun — vote against Johnson two times, not one." Tower was supported by prominent Democratic former Governor Coke Stevenson of Junction, the loser by 87 votes to Johnson in the 1948 Democratic Senate primary runoff. Tower polled 927,653 votes (41.1 percent) to Johnson's 1,306,605 votes (58 percent), better than Republicans usually fared in Texas at that time.
Johnson became Vice President, and Governor Price Daniel, Sr., appointed fellow Democrat William A. Blakley of Dallas to Johnson's Senate seat, pending a special election to be held in May 1961. Blakley, a conservative Democrat, had also been appointed by Daniel in 1957 to succeed Daniel in the Senate when Daniel was elected governor. Considerable numbers of liberal Texas Democrats opposed the conservative Blakely and did not vote. The conservative vote was divided. Texas conservatives, traditionally "yellow dog Democrats", had already voted for Republicans in the 1950s, when Democratic Governor Allan Shivers had aligned with Eisenhower, rather than the national Democratic candidate Adlai E. Stevenson, in a movement that was jokingly called "Shivercrats".
In his second Senate campaign in a matter of months, Tower charged that the national Democratic Party, represented by Kennedy and Johnson, was far to the left of typical Texas Democrats. The initial round of voting in the special election gave Tower 327,308 votes (30.9 percent) to Blakely's 191,818 (18.1 percent). The other contenders were Democrats Jim Wright, a congressman from Fort Worth and a future U.S. House Speaker, 171,328 (16.2 percent), state Attorney General Will Wilson (who later became a Republican and served in the Nixon Justice Department), 121,961 (11.5 percent), former state representative and liberal lawyer Maury Maverick, Jr., of San Antonio, 104,922 (9.9 percent), and then state Senator (and future Congressman) Henry B. Gonzalez, also of San Antonio, 97,659 (9.2 percent). There were some sixty-five other candidates, enticed by a filing fee at the time of only $50 for special elections, who polled a total of 4.2 percent of the vote.
Tower went on to win the runoff against Blakley. His election was historic: (1) first Republican U.S. senator from Texas since Reconstruction, (2) third Republican from the former Confederacy since Reconstruction, (3) first Republican from a former Confederate state since Newell Sanders of Tennessee left office in 1913 (a gap of forty-eight years), and (4) first Republican from the former Confederacy ever to win popular election. The final total was 448,217 votes (50.6 percent) for Tower and 437,872 (49.4 percent) for Blakely, a margin of 10,343 ballots.
United States Senate
During his first term, Tower was the only Republican Senator from the South until the defection in 1964 of Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. During this time, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the Senate, Tower was assigned to two major committees: the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Tower left the Labor and Public Welfare Committee in 1964, although in 1965 he was named to the Armed Services Committee, in which he served until his retirement. He was chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1984. Tower also served on the Joint Committee on Defense Production from 1963 until 1977 and on the Senate Republican Policy Committee in 1962 and from 1969 until 1984. Tower served as chairman of the latter from 1973 until his retirement from the Senate. As a member and later chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Tower was a strong proponent of modernizing the armed forces. In the Banking and Currency Committee, he was a champion of small businesses and worked to improve the national infrastructure and financial institutions. Tower supported Texas economic interests, working to improve the business environment of the energy, agricultural, and fishing and maritime sectors.
Tower also played a crucial role in the Nixon campaign's covert attempt to sabotage the 1968 Paris Peace Accords which could have ended the Vietnam War.
Tower quarrels with conservatives
Tower quarreled with State Senator Henry Grover of Houston, the 1972 Republican gubernatorial nominee, to such an extent that the intraparty divisions may have contributed to Grover's 100,000-vote defeat by Democrat Dolph Briscoe even as Tower was winning a third Senate term by nearly 311,000 votes.
Once considered a solid conservative, Tower angered his party's right-wing when he supported the nomination of President Gerald R. Ford, Jr., as the Republican nominee in 1976 over former Governor Ronald W. Reagan of California. Reagan won every Texas delegate in the first ever Texas Republican presidential primary and four at-large delegates chosen at the state convention, but he narrowly lost the party nomination to Ford at the convention held that year in Kansas City, Missouri. Ernest Angelo, one of three co-chairmen of the 1976 Reagan campaign in Texas and a former mayor of Midland, recalls a trip to Midland by Tower in 1975. In their drive from the airport, Angelo informed Tower that he would be working in the forthcoming campaign to draft and nominate Reagan. Angelo recalls Tower as having told him that supporting Reagan would be a "dumb thing to do". At the time, all Republican U.S. senators except Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Paul Laxalt of Nevada were committed to Ford. Tower blamed Ford's defeat in Texas on "Dixiecrats... the Reagan organization, aided by former Wallace leaders, made a concerted and obviously successful effort to get the Wallace vote in the Republican primary. In addition some section of Ford's defense and foreign policy alienated some voters who may otherwise have cast their ballot for the president."
By virtue of their primary defeat, the Texas Ford supporters were shut out of the national convention in Kansas City. Angelo recalls Tower as having "begged" for a delegate slot because he was a U.S. senator and was supposed to be the Ford floor leader at the convention. Angelo said that Tower could have been a delegate if he were to support Reagan, an impossible condition for Tower because of his early commitment to President Ford. Tower hence was not a delegate to the 1976 convention because Angelo was mindful that a close convention showdown could have been decided by a handful of delegate votes. Angelo said that he always personally liked and admired Tower though they disagreed on some issues: "John was the best extemporaneous speaker and solid as a rock on most issues." Tower had campaigned for Angelo in the latter's unsuccessful race in 1968 for the Texas State Senate. As time passed though, Tower alienated the conservative wing of his party with his support for abortion and opposition to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Barbara Staff, the Reagan co-chairman for Dallas County and North Texas, recalls that Tower spent much of his time at the convention with the closely divided Mississippi delegation and did not address the phalanx of Reagan backers in his own state's delegation. Among the Reagan backers was Betty Andujar of Fort Worth, the first Republican woman to serve in the State Senate.
Tower developed a close relationship with John McCain, who was then a Navy liaison to the Senate. Tower was instrumental in helping McCain win his first election, by raising money and obtaining support from Arizona Republicans. However, the two were never Senate colleagues; Tower left the Senate two years before McCain entered the upper chamber.
Tower was reelected three times - in 1966, 1972, and 1978, all of which were good years for Republican candidates. In 1966, Tower defeated Democratic Attorney General Waggoner Carr of Lubbock, 842,501 (56.7%) to 643,855 (43.3%). Despite the victory, Tower lost the majority of the state's rural districts. He won every county that cast more than 10,000 votes except for McLennan County (Waco) in central Texas. In numerous counties, the 1961 or the 1966 Tower election was the first in which that county had supported a Republican candidate. In 1968 and 1972, Tower recruited his friend and later business associate Paul Eggers of Wichita Falls as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Despite energetic but underfunded campaigns, Eggers lost both races to the Democrat Preston Smith of Lubbock.
In 1972, Tower defeated Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr. (1925–2008), a Dallas lawyer who had formerly served in the Texas House of Representatives, as a U.S. attorney under Kennedy, as a deputy attorney general and counselor to Johnson, and thereafter as a U.S. District Judge in Dallas, under appointment of Jimmy Carter, from 1979 until his death. Tower prevailed, 1,822,877 (54.7% of two-party vote) to Sanders's 1,511,948 (45.3% of two-party vote). There were more than 79,000 votes cast for others. Several of the "Democrats for Nixon" organizers in Texas made it clear that they were Sanders supporters for the Senate. Sanders ran far ahead of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in the state. Tower tried to tie Sanders to former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who donated $2,000 to the Sanders campaign."
In 1974, Tower supported the Republican former mayor of Lubbock Jim Granberry for governor. Granberry had defeated "New Right" candidate Odell McBrayer in the party primary but was then crushed by incumbent Governor Dolph Briscoe. It was a disastrous Republican year, both nationally and in Texas.
In 1978, Tower ran in a close campaign. He edged out Democratic Congressman Robert Krueger of New Braunfels in Comal County in the Hill Country, 1,151,376 (50.3% of two-party vote) to 1,139,149 (49.7% of two-party vote). Tower's plurality over Krueger was 12,227 votes, but because there were another 22,015 votes cast for other nominal contenders, Tower prevailed with less than 50% of the total vote. This was the campaign in which Tower refused to shake Krueger's hand at a candidate forum on grounds that his opponent had spread untruths about Tower's personal life. (Krueger later served in the Senate on an interim appointment from Governor Ann Richards from January to June 1993.)
Tower retired from the Senate after nearly twenty-four years in office. He continued to be involved in national politics, advising the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Two weeks after his leaving office, Tower was named chief United States negotiator at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva. Tower resigned from this office in 1987, and for a time was a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He became a consultant with Tower, Eggers, and Greene Consulting from 1987 to 1991.
In November 1986, President Reagan asked Tower to chair the President's Special Review Board to study the action of the National Security Council and its staff during the Iran-Contra Affair. The board, which became known as the Tower Commission, issued its report on February 26, 1987. The report was highly critical of the Reagan administration and of the National Security Council's dealings with both Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras.
In 1989, Tower was President George H. W. Bush's choice to become Secretary of Defense. But in a stunning move — particularly given that Tower was himself a former Senate colleague — the United States Senate rejected his nomination. The largest factors were concern about Tower's personal life, in particular allegations of alcohol abuse and womanizing. The Senate vote was 53-47, the first time that the Senate had rejected a cabinet nominee of a newly elected president.
As The New York Times reported in his obituary: "Mr. Tower's repudiation by his former colleagues, who rejected him as President Bush's nominee for Secretary of Defense after public allegations of womanizing and heavy drinking, left a bitterness that could not be assuaged. In the normally clubby Senate, Mr. Tower was regarded by some colleagues as a gut fighter who did not suffer fools gladly, and some lawmakers indicated that they were only too pleased to rebuke him."
In response to the alcohol allegations, Tower told The New York Times in 1990: "Have I ever drunk to excess? Yes. Am I alcohol-dependent? No. Have I always been a good boy? Of course not. But I've never done anything disqualifying. That's the point."
After Tower's defeat, he was instead named chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Dick Cheney, then a Representative from Wyoming and the House minority whip, was later confirmed as secretary of defense.
On April 5, 1991, Tower and his daughter Marian and the astronaut Sonny Carter were killed along with twenty other people in the crash of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 2311 on approach for landing at Brunswick, Georgia. The crash was due to propeller control failure. Tower and his daughter are buried together at the family plot of the Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas. A cenotaph in Tower's honor was erected at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Tower's personal and political life are chronicled in his autobiography, Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir, published a few months before his death. He donated his papers to his alma mater, Southwestern University.