On the eve of his all-but-certain Senate confirmation to one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, the nominee got the bad news. The FBI needed to reopen its background investigation of his private life because of concern that he lied in his earlier sworn denials about heavy drinking. The FBI would also review several allegations that, under the influence of alcohol, he had sexually harassed women.
The year was 1989, and the nominee was former Republican Senator John Tower of Texas. President George H.W. Bush, then newly elected, had nominated Tower to be his defense secretary. But the nomination, considered a done deal when it was announced, was ultimately rejected by Tower’s former Senate colleagues on a mostly party-line vote of 53 to 47. His humiliating defeat came after the updated, last-minute FBI background check found that while Tower had substantially cut back on his drinking, he had a “pattern of alcohol abuse” in the early 1980s. It was information the FBI had missed in an initial, supposedly exhaustive background investigation.
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An embittered Tower would insist afterwards that he had been the victim of a politically inspired “character-assassination campaign” in which he had been “publicly pilloried without ever having been accused of anything very, very serious.” Tower said that what happened to him was the sort of thing that normally occurred only “in an evil, Kafkaesque society.”
Tower’s outraged complaints about the Senate confirmation process almost 30 years ago were strikingly similar to what lawmakers heard last week from another embattled, high-profile Republican presidential nominee – federal appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is trying to salvage his nomination to the Supreme Court in the face of allegations of sexual assault and heavy drinking in his late teens.
In fact, Kavanagh could have been channeling Tower in parts of last week’s explosive testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Boiling with rage, Kavanaugh alleged to lawmakers that he was the target of “grotesque and coordinated character assassination” that amounted to “a calculated and orchestrated political hit.”
If they haven’t already, Kavanaugh’s supporters and opponents ought to go back and review the details of what happened to Senator Tower in 1989. While the judge’s plight is more often compared to that of Clarence Thomas when his 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court was nearly derailed by Anita Hill, it is Tower’s confirmation fight that offers the clearer lessons of what could ultimately save Kavanaugh’s nomination – or kill it.
Certainly Tower’s case demonstrated the peril that a high-profile presidential nominee like Kavanaugh faces when the FBI is told to conduct an 11th-hour, updated background check that may turn up derogatory personal information that the FBI will catalogue – but may have insufficient time to verify.
Kavanaugh’s supporters might try to reject any comparison with Tower, especially since the allegations against the now 53-year-old judge date back to the early 1980s, when Kavanaugh was a beer-loving teenager in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The allegations against Tower, by contrast, did not involve youthful indiscretions. He was accused of alcohol abuse and sexual misbehavior in middle age – while serving as a member of the Senate, no less. Tower, who was 63 when his nomination was defeated in 1989, died two years later in a plane crash.
On the other hand, Tower, unlike Kavanaugh, faced no allegation as serious as sexual assault – or any other sort of violence. Tower confronted no public accuser who was anywhere near as compelling as Christine Blasey Ford, the California research psychologist who testified before the Judiciary Committee last week and accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 years old, or Deborah Ramirez, a former college classmate of Kavanaugh’s who accuses him of unwelcome sexual contact when both had been drinking one night during their freshman year at Yale University.
As a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, I covered the Tower confirmation battle all those years ago. And after reviewing what was written at the time, I am struck by two things: One, how close Tower came to winning Senate confirmation — he was only hours away from a final vote by the Armed Services Committee to approve the nomination — and, two, how quickly it all unraveled after the FBI was ordered to conduct a new background investigation of his private life that centered heavily on his alcohol use.
Kavanaugh’s supporters do appear to understand the risk to his nomination posed by the updated FBI background check that is now underway. That explains why the White House and Senate Republicans initially tried to limit its scope to just a handful of witnesses, possibly including Ford. On Monday, in the face of protests from Senate Democrats, the White House reversed course, with President Trump insisting he would impose be no limits on the witness list or the rest of the investigation so long as the background check was completed this week.
The FBI was given much more time to reinvestigate Tower in 1989 – most of a month. The investigation turned up several bouts of heavy drinking in the early 1980s, although it noted that Tower had seemed to cut back his drinking substantially in the years leading up to his nomination. Senators said the final FBI background report on Tower, which was never made public, did not substantiate the most serious allegations of sexual harassment, including one in which he was accused of chasing women secretaries around his desk.
Still, while the report was inconclusive about some of the most damaging allegations against Tower, its findings were enough to sink his confirmation in the Senate, then controlled by Democrats. Republicans control the Senate today by a small margin, but Kavanaugh’s supporters know that may not make the difference. Tower, unlike Kavanaugh, had staunch support from a small group of Democrats senators until the bitter end; three would eventually vote for his confirmation. While a handful of Democrats from Republican-leaning states have not ruled out voting for Kavanaugh, they have made clear their votes are not assured and would not be cast with any enthusiasm.
Another important difference: While Tower was accused by witnesses who talked to the FBI of misrepresenting the scale of his boozing and womanizing, he was not accused of any larger pattern of lies in his testimony to the Senate. Kavanaugh, by comparison, is accused by Senate Democrats, as well as by non-partisan fact-checking organizations, of a long list of false statements, small and large. That includes everything from his definition of slang in distasteful passages of his high-school yearbook to his insistence that he was ignorant that confidential congressional emails passed to him while working in the George W. Bush White House had been stolen from the computer files of Senate Democrats.
In trying to salvage his nomination, Kavanaugh also faces a 21st-century hurdle that Tower and other men of that generation did not confront: the demands of the #Metoo movement and its goal of holding powerful men to account for instances of sexual abuse that were once widely tolerated or ignored.
Tower got away with conduct toward women in the 1980s that never would be permitted today. At the time of Tower’s nomination, the historic showdown between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill was still two years off, and sexism and sexual harassment were rampant on Capitol Hill. In Tower’s case, it was the allegations about his drinking – not his conduct with women while drinking – that became the real stumbling block to his confirmation.
In private, during the confirmation battle, Tower actually appeared to mock the allegations of sexual harassment. In the middle of the Senate fight, the Washington Post’s gossip columnist reported that Tower had been spotted in the restaurant at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel seated next to his then-girlfriend and playfully lunging at her with the words, “I’m going to fondle you.” The woman shrieked and told Tower: “Don’t you do that!” (I planted myself at that same restaurant one night – Tower and his girlfriend lived in the posh hotel in separate suites – and watched as he flirted with her at their usual, secluded table. For the record: I did not see him drink to excess, nor did I see him touch her inappropriately. I did listen as he made phone calls from the table in which he could be overheard complaining about witnesses giving derogatory information to the FBI. One witness “doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Tower barked into the phone. “He can’t get his story straight.”)
Tower’s nomination as defense secretary, a job he had coveted for much of his career in Congress, had seemed unstoppable when it was announced by President Bush in December 1988, the month after Bush’s election.
Although Tower was loathed by many of his former colleagues in the Senate – behind his back, the arrogant five-foot-five-inch Texan was known as “Little Caesar” – he was an undisputed expert on defense issues. He had served in the Senate for 24 years and chaired the Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1984. He knew he benefited from tradition, since the Senate had never before rejected a Cabinet nominee who had once been a member of the Senate. In fact, until Tower, it had been decades since the Senate had rejected any nominee to a presidential cabinet.
Initially, the Armed Services Committee, which was then under control by the Democrats, appeared willing to ignore Tower’s long-standing reputation around Washington as a heavy drinker and womanizer. The twice-divorced Tower was single at the time, and heavy drinking was common among members of Congress – far more common than it is today. During a private interview with the FBI as part of its initial background investigation, Tower acknowledged that he liked the occasional drink – but denied that he had ever abused liquor.
The nomination began to collapse, however, after last-minute testimony from a veteran conservative political activist, Paul Weyrich, who told the committee that he had seen Tower drunk “on a number of occasions” and in the company of women who were not his wife at a time when Tower was still married.
Weyrich’s testimony, which came on the eve of the committee’s scheduled vote on the nomination, led the panel’s Democratic chairman, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, to delay the vote while the FBI reopened its background investigation of Tower. Tower was called back to testify and asked by Nunn if he had ever had an “alcohol problem.”
“I have none, senator,” Tower replied. “I am a man of some discipline.”
That blanket denial may, ultimately, have sunk Tower’s confirmation chances, since it was easily rebutted by several witnesses who were then interviewed by the FBI as part of the renewed background check. Tower then found himself accused not just of alcohol abuse – but also of lying about it under oath.
Similarly, in his testimony last week, Kavanaugh angrily denied the allegation that he regularly drank heavily in high school and college, sometimes to the point of blacking out. He insisted that his alcoholic intake in high school was mostly limited to a few beers, though he acknowledged having a few too many on occasion. But as with Tower, witnesses have come forward since his sworn denial to say that Kavanaugh was often belligerently drunk in his high school and college years.
The fate of Kavanaugh’s nomination now appears to rest largely with the FBI, which has declined to comment publicly on its plans for the updated background check. Now supposedly empowered by Trump to decide on the scope of the investigation, the bureau could do to Kavanaugh what it did to Tower and conduct an aggressive nationwide hunt for any witness who may be able to undermine the nominee’s sworn testimony to Senate. Or it could restrict the investigation only to the search the witnesses with knowledge of the most explosive accusations again Kavanaugh, especially the sexual assault allegations from Dr. Ford. That inquiry would be less likely to damage Kavanaugh since there appear to be few witnesses, if any, to the events under scrutiny.
If the FBI choses the broader investigation, several new witnesses with derogatory information about Kavanaugh have made clear they are eager to talk – and are trying to reach the bureau to schedule interviews as soon as possible this week. “I have no desire to speak further publicly and have nothing more to say to the press at this time,” Chad Luddington, the Yale classmate, said in his statement to news organizations. “I will, however, take my information to the FBI.”
Whatever the outcome of his ugly confirmation fight, Kavanaugh’s friends should hope that he chooses to carry on with his life and career in a way very different from the path chosen by Senator Tower. His former aides said Tower spent the final two years of his life consumed by bitterness, publishing a memoir entitled “Consequences” that was vicious in its score-settling even by the tough standards of Washington. In the book, he identified—by name—former Senate colleagues he considered alcoholics, publicity-hounds and idiots. It was during his book tour in April 1991 that he died in a plane crash; the plane had been carrying him to a book party in Georgia.