The intense battle over the confirmation of John G. Tower as defense secretary, President Bush's first major political crisis, has exposed serious weaknesses in Bush's White House, according to insiders and Republican analysts.
Although Bush has been in office only six weeks, the Tower fight has all but obliterated the president's other, modest initiatives. Bush's political advisers are privately worried about the long-term costs of the expected defeat of the Tower nomination so early in this presidency.With few personnel choices made other than at the top of agencies, Bush is presiding over a shell of a government. Months ago as a presidential candidate, he promised "wholesale change" in the corridors of power, but only a fraction of the senior posts below the Cabinet level that require confirmation by the Senate have been filled and many agencies still have no Bush appointees in place. Bush was reduced to visiting the Pentagon for photo opportunities last week to demonstrate concern for the huge military establishment; not one Bush-appointed official has yet taken office in the Defense Department.
Some Republicans are growing impatient with what many describe as a poorly functioning White House under chief of staff John H. Sununu. According to more than two dozen people interviewed for this article - officials of the new administration and veterans of the Bush campaign, all of whom declined to be identified by name - there have been bottlenecks, missed opportunities and foul-ups in the offices of legislative affairs, personnel, speech writing, domestic policy and the White House counsel. One frequent complaint is that Bush's top assistants all report to Sununu and seem to have little serious communication with each other.
Asked for comment about these complaints, Sununu said in a statement through an aide, "I am proud of my team. I accept responsibility for whatever real or perceived mistakes have been made. But we've got a good group together. There will be tough times and there will be good times."
However, one senior official said, "I am terribly worried that the White House hasn't come to grips with this chaos. The senior staff meeting is small and lasts about 20 minutes and is procedural. There is no real forum for sharing what is or isn't being done in an area or (discussing) where to go."
For example, although Bush has vowed to fight all-out for Tower and has forbidden his staff from even contemplating a replacement nominee, there is no White House working group to coordinate the confirmation fight.
The result is confusion over even the most routine matters. When a Bush White House aide called the Republican National Committee, which has its headquarters on Capitol Hill, to ask for a copy of the "talking points" being used to drum up support for Tower, the aide was told he could get them by walking down the hall in the West Wing to the public liaison office. At the same time, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was asked by reporters whether the public liaison office was issuing such materials to various groups and asking them to pressure Congress. Fitz-water replied in the negative, when in fact those talking points were already being distributed.
When Tower pledged in a television interview to stop drinking alcohol if confirmed, Fred McClure, the White House congressional liaison, was not informed in advance, although the pledge idea had been worked out with Sununu and White House counsel C. Boyden Gray. McClure said he learned of Tower's statement several hours later when he watched a tape of the broadcast.
Sununu, accompanying Bush on his Asian tour, had difficulty getting reliable information about the upcoming Senate Armed Services Committee vote. A Sununu deputy began calling reporters in Washington from Tokyo for information because he could not reach McClure.
As this week's Senate floor vote approaches, Sununu was again away from the action over the weekend - attending a charity ski event in New Hampshire.
The Tower fight has become the biggest story of the Bush presidency, overwhelming all else. Thomas Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College, said the Tower allegations have captured public attention "in the absence of big policy initiatives" or any larger agenda from Bush. Moreover, he said, the Tower melodrama has the ingredients of a political potboiler - sex, liquor and the power of a new president.
"It's a great movie, a great play," he said. "It's the kind of human interest story that the American people grasp far beyond the Beltway. People are taking sides. It's a story far easier for the average citizen to grasp and be interested in than complicated budget formulas or the trade deficit."
A senior administration official observed that Bush is paying a price for not having an ambitious agenda comparable to Ronald Reagan's. "This administration is like a canoe standing still in a pond. Every little ripple can knock you over. Reagan was a boat moving forward so the little ripples caused little troubles, but you had this momentum and kept moving."
When Bush stressed ethics, this official noted, questions were raised about the financial holdings of two top advisers, Gray and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Then came the budget speech and the Tower controversy exploded. "Then you had diplomacy, as in Japan and the Far East, and Tower screwed that up. And Tower is taking care of this week. And next week is drug week, and Tower is taking care of that." The Senate is expected to vote on Tower next week, just as Bush has scheduled a series of speeches about drug abuse.
"No matter what we do, John Tower will dominate," said McClure, Bush's chief of congressional relations.