Tactical errors, misjudgments and unlucky timing helped turn the confirmation
hearings of John G. Tower into a quagmire for the Bush administration, White House and congressional officials say.In reconstructing the events that led to the Senate Armed Services Committee's negative vote on Tower Thursday, these officials cite two critical moments.
One was on Feb. 7, when White House officials decided to invite the committee's nine Republicans, but not the 11 Democrats, to a White House briefing about the Federal Bureau of Investigation's report on Tower.
The other came earlier, in November, when President Bush, still aglow with his election triumph, brushed off what one White House official called a "nearly clairvoyant" warning from his close friend, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. Brady predicted that Tower might face stiff opposition in the Senate because of rumors about his personal conduct.
White House officials acknowledge that they mishandled Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the committee, and were slow to realize that he might vote against Tower.
Other officials, including some Republicans, fault the decision to let the confirmation procedure go forward while Bush and his top advisers were in Japan for Emperor Hirohito's funeral.
This left the Washington lobbying effort in the hands of C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, and Vice President Dan Quayle, neither of whom is regarded as adept at influencing Congress.
After two phone calls, for example, Quayle felt he had not won an outright commitment from Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Though he would eventually vote yes, Warner's unwillingness to take a strong public stand for Tower may
have made it easier for conservative Democrats like Richard C. Shelby of Alabama to vote no.
In the end, not a single Democrat on the committee voted for Tower, and the White House has had to mount an all-out effort to salvage the nomination in the Senate, where the Democrats have a 10-vote majority.
Many White House and congressional officials single out Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 7, just 19 days into the new administration, as the time when, as one put it, "everything went wrong at once."
That morning, White House aides said, the administration was confident that it had finally smoothed the path to a vote in the Senate committee, nearly two months after Tower's nomination was announced.
But by nightfall, Nunn was bristling with indignation about the private briefing for Republicans. And the administration, stung by a call from the FBI that warned of new allegations about Tower's campaign finances, was forced to request a crippling delay in the committee's vote.
In the end, the vote was taken while Bush and his top aides were halfway around the world. From Tokyo, John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, had to battle a 14-hour time difference in his last-minute effort to win the vote.
It is not clear whether the White House asked the committee to delay its vote until Bush could get home.
Some criticism has also been directed at Nunn and Warner for allowing one witness in a public session to charge Tower with drunkenness.
Congressional aides said that the testimony of Paul G. Weyrich, a conservative lobbyist, surprised both senior senators and forced into public a discussion that they had wanted to confine to a closed-door session.
The question of Tower's personal life first surfaced in meetings of the Bush inner circle after the election.
Although Bush never promised the Pentagon job to Tower, administration officials said, he had essentially decided before the election to appoint his longtime supporter.
"There were some other people that Bush talked to," said a senior presidential aide. "But that was on the theory that if you didn't appoint Tower, then who would you appoint? It was always Tower first."
Another said, "Bush took the view that all the allegations were gossip, and unless the FBI proved them true, there was no reason to disqualify Tower."