John Tower

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John Goodwin Tower

In office
June 15, 1961 – January 3, 1985
Preceded by William A. "Bill" Blakely
Succeeded by Phil Gramm

Born September 29, 1925
Houston, Texas
Died April 5, 1991
Brunswick, Georgia
Resting place Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas, Texas
Political party Democrat-turned-Republican (1951)
Spouse(s) (1) Joza Lou Bullington Tower (married 1952-1976, divorced)

(2) Lila Burt Cummings Tower (married 1977-1987, divorced)

Children Penny Cook (born 1954)

Marian Tower (1955–1991)
Jeanne Cox (born 1956)

Occupation Political science professor

Political consultant

Religion United Methodist

John Goodwin Tower (September 29, 1925 – April 5, 1991) was the first Republican elected to the United States Senate from his native Texas since the era of Reconstruction. He is also the first member of his party to represent by popular election any state of the former Confederacy in the Senate. He held his Senate position from 1961 to 1985. In his early years, he was conservative in his voting record; as time passed he turned Moderate Republican.


Born in Houston to a Methodist pastor, Joe Z. Tower (1898-1970) and his wife, Beryl (1898-1990), John Tower served in the United States Navy during World War II and thereafter until 1989 in the Naval Reserve. He graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and studied at the London School of Economics in London, England. He switched from the Democratic Party in 1951, another source says 1948, and in 1954 contested, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the Texas House of Representative from Wichita Falls and campaigned in 1956 for Dwight D. Eisenhower's re-election to the presidency. In 1960, he polled 41 percent of the vote in a Republican campaign against Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who was also running for vice president on the ticket headed by John F. Kennedy. Upon his election as vice president, Johnson resigned from the Senate and Governor Price Daniel, Sr., appointed a conservative Democrat, William A. "Bill" Blakely of Dallas as the interim senator. In a two-round special election in the spring of 1961, Tower prevailed by a narrow margin over Blakely, who had also been an interim senator in 1957, when the outgoing Senator Price Daniel became governor. Several prominent Democrats went down to defeat in the special election, including future U.S. House Speaker James C. "Jim" Wright of Fort Worth and the Hispanic firebrand, Henry B. Gonzalez, who later in 1961 won another special election for the United States House of Representatives for San Antonio, a position he held until 1999.

Political life

Tower went on to win full six-year senatorial terms in 1966 against the Democrats Waggonner Carr of Lubbock, in 1972 against Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr., of Dallas, and in 1978 against later interim Senator Robert Krueger of New Braunfels. In the 1972 campaign, he quarreled over tactics with the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee, Henry C. Grover, a staunch conservative from Houston. He did not run in 1984 and was succeeded early the next year by fellow Republican Phil Gramm.

For three years, Tower was he only Republican Senator from the South until Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched parties in 1964. Tower opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was considered for years as one of the most conservative members of the Senate. But in 1976, Tower began to alienate many conservatives by his support of Gerald Ford, rather than Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries. Reagan won every Texas delegate in the Texas Republican presidential primary and four at-large delegates chosen at the state convention, but he narrowly lost the party nomination to Ford at the convention held that year in Kansas City, Missouri though Ford was ultimately unseated by Jimmy Carter. Ernest Angelo, Jr., one of three co-chairmen of the 1976 Reagan campaign in Texas and a former mayor of Midland, recalls a visit with Tower in 1975, when Angelo informed Tower that he would be working in the Reagan campaign. Angelo recalls Tower as having told him that supporting Reagan would be a "dumb thing to do".[1] At the time, all Republican U.S. senators except Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Paul Laxalt of Nevada were committed to Ford. Tower blamed Ford's defeat in Texas on "Dixiecrats ... the Reagan organization, aided by former George Wallace leaders, made a concerted and obviously successful effort to get the Wallace vote in the Republican primary. In addition, some section of Ford's defense and foreign policy alienated some voters who may otherwise have cast their ballot for the president."[2]

By virtue of their primary defeat, the Texas Ford supporters, including former state Senator Cyndi Taylor Krier, were shut out of the national convention in Kansas City. Angelo recalls Tower as having "begged" for a delegate slot because he was a U.S. senator and was supposed to be the Ford floor leader at the convention. Angelo said that Tower could have been a delegate if he were to support Reagan, an impossible stipulation. Tower hence was not a delegate to the 1976 convention because Angelo was mindful that a close convention showdown could have been decided by a handful of delegate votes. Angelo said that he always personally liked and admired Tower though they disagreed on some issues: "John was the best extemporaneous speaker and solid as a rock on most issues." Tower had campaigned for Angelo in the latter's unsuccessful race in 1968 for the Texas State Senate. As time passed though, Tower alienated the conservative wing of his party with his support for legalized abortion and opposition to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.[3] Barbara Staff, the Reagan co-chairman for Dallas County and North Texas, recalls that Tower spent much of his time at the convention with the closely divided Mississippi delegation and did not address the phalanx of Reagan backers in his own state's delegation. Among the Reagan backers was Betty Andujar of Fort Worth, the first Republican woman to serve in the State Senate.[4]

In his last four years in the Senate, Tower headed the Senate Armed Services Committee, considered among the more significant of all congressional committee chairmanships. Though a strongly conservative in his first few years in office, he moved steadily leftward until he left the Senate. In 1983, he voted against the Martin Luther King holiday bill though many other Republicans in both houses of Congress supported the holiday, which President Reagan signed into law.

After he left the Senate, Tower was chief negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the former Soviet Union and led the Tower Commission, which issued a report highly critical of the Reagan administration's relations with the Contras and Iran. In 1989, incoming President George H. W. Bush chose Tower as his nominee for Secretary of Defense, but his nomination was rejected by the Senate after charges of drinking and womanizing surfaced. The opposition of Georgia Senator Sam Nunn solidified the Democratic majority against the nomination, and Tower was defeated, 53–47. After this stinging rebuke, Tower chaired the Bush Intelligence Advisory Board.

Surprise death

Tower was first married to the former Joza "Lou" Bullington (1920-2001), a California native who was five years his senior and a music teacher and their church pianist. Lou was a distant cousin of the 1932 Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee, Orville Bullington, also of Wichita Falls. In the first part of their marriage, the Towers resided in Wichita Falls, at which he was a political science professor at Midwestern State University. After he became senator, they relocated to Dallas. The couple had three daughters. Lou campaigned vigorously for her husband in the elections of 1961, 1966, and 1972 and was warmly received throughout the state. In 1977, the year after his divorce from Lou, John Tower wed the former Lila Burt Cummings, from whom he was also divorced in a bitter split in 1987.

Tower died with his middle daughter, Marian, in the 1991 crash of Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 2311 in Brunswick, Georgia, while the two were on a promotional tour for Tower's Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir, published a few months before the crash. He donated his papers to his alma mater, Southwestern University.[5] John and Lou Tower and daughter Marian are interred at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas. John and Lou are not buried side by side. A cenotaph in Tower's honor was erected at the Texas State Cemetery in the capital city of Austin.

Tower's impact on Texas politics continues through the success of at least three prominent Republicans, John Cornyn, who holds the old Tower seat, former state Representative Dan H. Branch of Dallas, who chairs the board of the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University and lost an intra-party challenge to conservative Ken Paxton in 2014 for the office of Texas attorney general, and Joe Straus of San Antonio, the Texas House from 2009 to 2019 who held his position through an alliance with the chamber's fifty-five Democratic members. Straus was once a youthful chauffeur for Senator Tower.


  1. Billy Hathorn, "Mayor Ernest Angelo, Jr. of Midland and the 96-0 Reagan Sweep of Texas, May 1, 1976," West Texas Historical Association Yearbook Vol. 86 (2010) (since known as the West Texas Historical Review), p. 85.
  2. The Laredo Morning Times, May 2, 1976.
  3. Hathorn, "Mayor Ernest Angelo", pg. 86.
  4. "Convention Notes: No love lost between Texans, Betty Ford", Dallas Morning News, August 19, 1976, pg. 6A.
  5. John G. Tower Papers. Southwestern University. Retrieved on November 15, 2012.