Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,317
This is the grave of John Tower.
Born in Houston in 1925, Tower moved through Texas as a child because his father was a Methodist minister and moved around a lot to different parishes. By high school, he was in Beaumont, graduating in 1942. He went to college at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, which incidentally is the first school that ever hired me as a professor. At least you now know who to blame.
Tower’s time at Southwestern was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy in 1943 and was on an amphibious gunboat most of the time in the Pacific. He was a seaman first class when he was discharged in 1946. He then returned to Southwestern and graduated in 1948. He was a political science major, so that’s one demerit. He also worked as a country music DJ at a station in Austin. That makes up for the political science major. In 1949, he started graduate school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and got a job at Midwestern State College in Wichita Falls in 1951. He stayed there as a political science professor until 1960. He didn’t even have the master’s degree until 1953, but then academic credentials meant a lot less back then to get hired at small colleges. His thesis was on the working class supporters of the Tories and he spent some time in England studying them.
Like almost every other white Texan, Tower was a Democrat. But he was ahead of the game in switching to the Republican Party, which happened while he was at SMU. Soon, there would be a headlong rush into making the Republican the White Man’s Party. Tower had the advantage of being there first. It wasn’t hard to rise in that small party and Tower was a major figure real fast. By 1954, he was running and losing races for the state legislature. He was also the sacrificial lamb in 1960 to run for the Senate against LBJ. But then LBJ became Vice President and there was a special election for the Senate to replace him. In a big upset, Tower won that election, making him the first Republican to represent a southern state in the Senate since 1913. It was a real squeaker, over the Democratic candidate William Blakely, 50.6-41.4. I think some of the reason this happened is that there were a lot of Democrats who ran in the first round and some switched their votes to Tower out of sour grapes toward Blakely. Despite being the only Republican in the race, Tower’s vote share increased by about 9 percent between the primary and general.
In the Senate, Tower mostly worked on financial issues and the military. As time went on, he became the key Republican senator on military issues, chairing the Armed Services Committee from 1981-84 and being the minority leader on the committee for much longer. He was a big proponent of throwing a ton of money into the military to modernize it. He worked closely with Reagan on military issues, even though they did not have a close relationship. After all, Tower was a big Gerald Ford guy. He really wasn’t a movement conservative. He was a rich guy conservative. He also broke from Reagan over Star Wars. Tower believed in modernizing the military, not flushing money down the toilet on clown show programs. Mostly, he was a kind of boring, policy focused senator.
Tower had a kind of weird record on race. He voted against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also voted against an amendment to weaken the Civil Rights Act that Al Gore Sr. put forward. He then went ahead and voted to confirm Thurgood Marshall to the Senate. I think the thing that connects this is an opposition to the government getting involved in racial issues, which is a kind of racism but one that is at least partially covered up by other issues. I don’t think, however, that we can say that Tower was anything but awful in fact on racial issues given he voted against basically every civil rights law, as well as against Republican platform planks on civil rights in both 1960 and 1964. He also moved to the left on social issues, becoming supportive of abortion rights and even gay rights, which was hardly normal for anyone in the 1980s, not to mention a conservative Republican. I guess he grew over time and we should always recognize this when it happens. In fact, in 1984, he was a featured speaker at the NAACP national convention, even if it was mostly bullshit about how Reagan was good for the Black community which give me a break. Molly Ivins recognized this about him, among other people.
In 1984, Tower chose not to run for reelection. The puketastic Phil Gramm replaced him. Tower went into private work on national defense, mostly creating a consulting agency for weapons firms, and also was a troubleshooter for Reagan on military issues, including on Iran-Contra, where he chaired a government “investigative” panel, which I put in quotation marks because Tower wasn’t too interested in investigation. He also was the top Congressional lobbyist for Reagan’s treaty with the Soviets banning medium-range nuclear missiles.
What Tower really wanted late in his career was to be Secretary of Defense. He openly lobbied for it in 1981, but Reagan went with Caspar Weinberger instead. Again, he and Reagan really weren’t that close. So it took until 1989, when his good buddy and fellow Texas Republican George Bush became president. Bush gladly nominated Tower.
But Tower had some problems. He was a massive drinker. He was a terrible womanizer, and this in age when you had Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd in the Senate, so he was even more than those sexist assholes. Plus most of the Senate personally hated him. He wasn’t part of the Senate club really, not the good old days when Joe Biden could hang around the Senate locker room telling dirty jokes while Jennings Randolph stood around naked displaying his old flaccid penis for all to see. The good ol’ days you know. Tower wasn’t so interested in that. Sam Nunn especially hated him and Nunn saw to it that all the rumors about Tower were leaked to the media. Tower did admit to being a heavy drinker but he didn’t see why that should really matter here, and, I mean, fair enough. I don’t either. But, in a shot to Bush, the Senate defeated the nomination 53-47. Moreover, Bush responded by naming Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense, who was far, far worse and of course had a infinitely more horrifying legacy. Sometimes, you get what you ask for I guess and Democrats asked for this one.
Tower was angry, hurt, and devastated. His lifelong dream was denied by his enemies. Pretty rare for the Senate to reject one of its own too, so they must have really hated him. In the aftermath, Tower went back to his lobbying and insider stuff. Bush named him to chair the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, so he certainly was still a player, but not what he wanted to be.
Tower also had one hell of a hairpiece. This was the era where a man could really roll with the hairpiece.
In 1991, Tower, along with one of his daughters, was on an Atlantic Southeast flight when it crashed while attempting to land in Brunswick, Georgia. Everyone died. Tower was 65 years old.
John Tower is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, Dallas, Texas.
If you would like this series to visit other chairman of the Armed Services Committee, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Stennis (and what a sweetheart he was) is in De Kalb, Mississippi and Barry Goldwater is in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Previous posts in this series are archived here.