By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In the middle of a bitter fight over a Republican president's nominee for defense secretary, a former White House occupant pleaded with senators to give the president his choice for the Pentagon job.
"Unless there is conclusive evidence against the nominee, the Senate should respect the right of a new president to choose the men and women he believes are best qualified to serve in his Cabinet," former President Richard Nixon said in March 1989.
Nixon's request fell upon deaf ears. The Democratic-controlled Senate, on a largely party-line vote, defeated the nomination of John Tower amid allegations that he was an excessive drinker, womanizer and held close ties to defense contractors — all charges that he denied.
It was an ignominious outcome for the former four-term Texas senator as it marked the first time the Senate had rejected one of its own for a Cabinet post. Republican President George H.W. Bush, on the job barely two months, absorbed the political blow.
More than two decades later, President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary, two-term former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, faces stiff opposition from fellow Republicans who are willing to ignore Nixon's plea — and perhaps even toss aside their own words from 24 years ago — and vote against Hagel.
While not even Hagel's critics have tried to liken the nominee to such lightning-bolt names as Tower and one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, they do argue that the principle of protecting a president's prerogatives on Cabinet choices comes into play nevertheless.
The two politically charged confirmation fights over Tower and Hagel offer obvious parallels and notable differences, especially in a Senate short on traditional comity.
The Defense Department took issue with the comparison.
"This confirmation process is about one nominee and one nominee alone: Chuck Hagel and his strong record on the issues and his proven ability to lead. People should resist the temptation to draw historical comparisons that don't add up," the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said Friday in London, where he was traveling with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In both cases, Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate — good news for Hagel as his nomination gained some Democratic momentum this week with the backing of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer. The two had expressed misgivings about whether he was sufficiently pro-Israel and anti-Iran.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., already were in Hagel's corner, lauding the decorated Vietnam War veteran who would be the first enlisted man to head the Pentagon. Hagel met with Levin and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Thursday in advance of his confirmation hearing on Jan. 31.
Tower was up against near unanimous Democratic opposition led by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Georgia's Sam Nunn, who argued that the nominee's behavior was a disqualification. Tower's history of alcohol abuse would prevent him from receiving a clearance "to command a missile wing, a (Strategic Air Command) bomber squadron or a Trident missile submarine," Nunn said.
One of Tower's fiercest defenders was Republican Sen. John McCain, who had met Tower when he was a Navy liaison officer to the Senate and considered the Texan his mentor. In the drawn-out fight over Tower's nomination, McCain railed against what he considered the unfair treatment of the nominee, who had served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
"I think it is of the utmost importance that we establish a clear record of what is being done to a good and decent man by this incredible process of allegations, and indeed, what is being done in the way of standards to be set for future nominees and to the traditional relationship between the executive and legislative branches," McCain said during the Senate debate in March 1989.
In the next few weeks, all will be watching McCain, who once was close to Hagel but split with his fellow Vietnam veteran over the Iraq war and the 2008 presidential race. Hagel did not endorse in that race, a snub for McCain, the GOP presidential nominee. Hagel's wife, Lilibet, backed Obama.