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A reply to Senator McCain's Worth Fighting For

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted December 2, 2002

Cox News has launched a new initiative in their Washington bureau that I wish more outlets of the news media would start to do. They have started to bring in folks from all across the political spectrum to critique the news media. I was privileged to be the first to attend their series of lunches and to talk about the news media and its coverage with members of their 37 man Washington bureau.

We had a very cordial discussion for the most part and the questions that I received from the group were incisive. The one tense moment came when one reporter who had read John McCain's new book, Worth Fighting For, challenged my role in the Senate hearing held in 1989 to consider the nomination of former Texas senator John Tower (R) to be secretary of defense. He quoted McCain repeatedly and was rather heated about it. Later, Steve Lilienthal, the media relations director for the Free Congress Foundation, showed me a review of McCain's book that appeared in The New York Times and a story about the Arizona senator from the Chicago Tribune, both of which mentioned his comments regarding me. Steve urged me to write a commentary that replied to Senator McCain's charges and to tell my side of the story. So here goes:

I find it amusing that Senator McCain, having described me as "a social conservative of no national prominence" would take five pages of his book to excoriate me. If I am as insignificant as he suggests, why, I wonder, would he bother?

McCain said he knew me slightly at the time that I had testified against John Tower, but did not have any strong feelings about me. Well, by way of background, I had met McCain's father, Admiral John Sidney McCain, Jr., who was in charge of our Pacific fleet, in 1972 while in Hawaii on my way to the Far East.

He gave one of the most remarkable briefings that I have ever heard, discussing the choke points that the Communists were developing worldwide to control strategic minerals. It was so impressive that I remember it to this day. When the Admiral returned to Washington, I stayed in touch with him and arranged for him to deliver the same briefing to a larger group. I especially admired the Admiral because he hung tough even though his son was one of those POWs who were being held by the Vietnamese Communists.

I also knew of John McCain through his first wife. At the time, I was working for Senator Gordon Allott (R-CO), the Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the third ranking position in leadership among Senate Republicans in the early 1970s. McCain's first wife was working her heart out on behalf of the POW cause, trying to make sure that we did not forget those left behind. She came repeatedly to our office, enough to the point that Senator Allott and those he dealt with had the POW issue on the radar screen at all times.

So when John McCain returned from Vietnam, I contacted his father and told him that the conservatives on Capitol Hill wanted to honor his son as symbolic of all those POWs under the brutal Vietnamese Communist regime who had been released. Several hundred turned out for the lunch, which in 1973 was very remarkable. There weren't that many conservatives on Capitol Hill at the time. I presented John McCain with a plaque in honor of the occasion. McCain received a thunderous standing ovation for service to his country.

So yes, he knew me slightly.

Now, he says I am a pompous self-serving son-of-a-bitch. I admit to being pompous at times and I have lot of folks who would agree that I am a S.O.B. But I try not to be self-serving.

John Tower

And it wasn't for myself that I testified against John Tower. McCain says I never participated in debates over national security. Apparently, he did not know that in 1979 I started the Stanton Group, a defense/foreign policy coalition that I co- chaired with Henry Walther, and which was ten years old at the time of the controversy over Tower. (The Stanton Group still meets every two weeks in my offices even after 23 years, although I no longer co-chair it.)

General Dan Graham, who once headed Defense Intelligence and who was, at the time, head of High Frontier, asked me if I would call a special meeting of the Stanton Group in December, 1988, which I agreed to do. At the meeting, Graham made a pitch that we had to oppose John Tower, who at the time was reported to be President Bush's choice for Secretary of Defense. Tower, Graham insisted, was a fierce opponent of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which had been initiated by President Ronald Reagan.

Graham was worried that it would be killed under President Bush if Tower did become Secretary of Defense. He asked the attendees of this special Stanton meeting to sign up to testify against Tower should he be nominated. Fourteen did so, including some retired military officers who headed veterans' organizations. Graham told the group that he had been asked to oppose Tower by a number of high-ranking officials in the Pentagon who had similar concerns about Tower but were not free to speak out.

As one of the fourteen, I notified the Armed Services Committee about my interest in testifying about the nomination of Tower and did not give the matter much more thought.

Then, as the hearings approached, I called around to see who among the fourteen would be joining me in opposing Tower, only to be astonished that one by one every single one of those who had agreed to testify had declined to do so. When the Administration found out about the groups wanting to testify against Tower, they put pressure on them to drop their opposition. When I reached Graham, who initiated all of this, he said he too wasn't going to take the stand to testify against Tower. When I asked him why, he said Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-WY) had warned him there would be dire consequences to him and his organization if he testified. "And I'd advise you for your own good to drop your opposition," Graham told me. That upset me because it was Graham who had felt so strongly about Tower that he signed up fourteen people to testify against his nomination and now, at the last minute, had surrendered to political pressure. Graham said he had been assigned to get me not to testify. I told Graham that he had picked the wrong guy to try to pressure.

Now in McCain's book, he claims that the only reason I opposed Tower was because of his stand on abortion. As God is my witness, Tower's position on abortion had absolutely nothing to do with my opposition to him. My testimony was several pages, single-spaced in length. It was mostly about defense matters, especially his lack of support for SDI. I had one paragraph in which I touched upon Tower's personal behavior. But it was enough to cause Sam Nunn (D-GA), Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to ask me to testify behind closed doors.

McCain now complains that my closed door testimony did not indict Tower sufficiently. His description of what occurred at that hearing is one-sided. I have tried for a decade to have the transcript released and have been unsuccessful in doing so. I would like the public to read where Ted Kennedy of all people took it upon himself to lecture me about morality and the other things that went on in the hearing room that day.

This much I can tell you. It was a very costly decision I made to testify against John Tower. The Free Congress Foundation nearly went out of business because of it. Tower had many rich and powerful friends, especially in Texas. To this day, there are conservative donors in Texas who will not even give me the time of day because of my having testified against Tower.

McCain's description of me is downright hilarious to those who know me. I am, he said, "the joyless preacher who for the sake of God and country sorrowfully consents to participate in the profane business of politics, and whose sour disposition is a natural reaction to the distasteful duty of consorting with the morally inferior beings who populate the profession." Now, I will admit that having to deal with the likes of McCain and others who are far worse in the Senate does, on occasion, cause me to have a sour disposition but that is hardly my ordinary state of mind.

I have, McCain says, the attributes of a Dickensian villain. "Corpulent and dyspeptic, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer as if life in general were an unpleasant experience, he is the embodiment of the caricature often used to malign all religious conservatives."

Well, now, those of you who read this, I hereby give you my blessing to wipe that sneer off of my face should you encounter it in person. In truth, I rather think what is bothering McCain is not my alleged sneer, but that McCain hates what he has correctly perceived as the growing influence of religious conservatives in the Republican Party. After all, it is those conservatives who turned out in great numbers for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries and doomed McCain's own hopes for the White House.

McCain is angry because he says correctly that I was critical of the breakup of his first marriage and "traffic in allegations that [he] had committed treason while a Prisoner of War in Vietnam." I admit I don't know of his side of the story. But I do know that McCain's first wife, Carol, had worked for him with such devotion when he was a POW. Yet, as soon as McCain was back and assigned to the Navy's Office of Congressional Affairs, one of his colleagues disgustedly reported that McCain was making overtures to every good-looking female who came near the office. Perhaps that contributed to the breakup of his first marriage. I don't know, but it is hard not to feel sympathy for his first wife and think that someone who had worked so tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of her husband did not receive similar devotion and loyalty in return.

As to raising questions about his service in Vietnam, I was only quoting people who had served with him. I interviewed about a half-dozen of them a few years ago when he was seeking the presidential nomination. They alleged that he received special treatment while a POW. I said at the time that I had no idea if the allegations were true. What I can say is that the feelings about him among those who made the charges were so intensely emotional that they must have had at least some basis for making them. Perhaps it is just jealousy or perhaps the Vietnamese Communists spread rumors about McCain. I do not know. I did know those allegations were out there and I had commented on them. Furthermore, I was right to do so because any candidate for the highest office in our land should have his background and character scrutinized thoroughly. It was my hope that a news organization would take a look at the charges and employ fairness and objectivity in assessing their validity.

Apparently, McCain felt they had some effect on his defeat or else he wouldn't have mentioned the one column that I wrote on the subject.

I'll say this: McCain and his associate Mark Salter are good writers. McCain's book is extremely well-written for a political memoir.

He says that religious conservatives are quick to concern themselves with the Sixth Commandment about not committing adultery. But they ignore the Ninth Commandment about bearing false witness against one's neighbor. Well, I did not bear false witness against Tower. I said I had seen him in a less than sober condition on a number of occasions and also carrying on with women who were not his wife. Now, I will be the first to admit that I had no pictures, no names, and were the Armed Services Committee a court of law, my testimony would have been dismissed. Indeed, since Senators from both sides, except Jim Exon (D) of Nebraska, dismissed my testimony when I was in the closed door session, I assumed that Tower would be confirmed overwhelmingly. I'm not sure what caused Chairman Nunn to announce his own opposition to Tower, but almost all the Democrats followed his lead. If my testimony was as insufficient as McCain says it was, then why blame me for Tower's demise?

McCain also has it in for C. Boyden Gray, legal counsel for President George Herbert Walker Bush. I will say this. If you make McCain's list, he really takes the trouble to describe you in very colorful terms. Here's how he describes Gray: "He had always struck me as a dilettante, an Ivy League patrician who plays politics with alternately a pretended enthusiasm or a gentlemanly disdain for the crudeness of a business in which one was obliged to consort with those of less aristocratic breeding." McCain thinks Gray's distaste for Tower and the decisions that Gray made accordingly helped to doom his friend John Tower.

It is a surprise that McCain would devote some 40 pages to a nomination that failed fourteen years ago. Tower also wrote a book alleging that I had opposed him because of his pro- abortion views. The poor man is dead now so I cannot correct the record with him. Perhaps, wherever he is, he knows the truth now.

McCain says, "To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, Weyrich fairly trembled for his country as he considered God was just and not likely to pass unnoticed the presence of a boozy reprobate in the highest councils of our government. I don't know why not. God has seemed to suffer more than a few such scoundrels lowering the standards of public office since the very first days of the Republic's founding, and He still continues to bless our country with His bounty."

There you have the essence of McCain's view. Even if Tower had been a boozy reprobate, so what? Well, I am glad that he was rejected for Secretary of Defense and I believe that his replacement, Dick Cheney, will go down in history as one of the best to ever fill that position. I rest my case.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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