The subject was a high profile nominee of a Republican President. What seemed to be a contested, yet expected confirmation, suddenly changed amid questions of personal behavior. The FBI began gathering more evidence. In the media, and on the Senate floor, the debate between the parties turned bitter and caustic. It involved tales of alcohol abuse, tinged with allegations of sexual misconduct. And it left the Senate bitterly divided.
It was early 1989. President George H.W. Bush was assembling his Cabinet, and his nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Sen. John Tower (R-TX) suddenly found himself being skewered on an hourly basis over his past behavior.
By early March, Senators filed into a top secret room in the Capitol to review the Tower FBI file.
And on Thursday, that’s almost exactly where we are in the Senate with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court, as Senators are set to read findings by the FBI about the judge, amid questions of his personal behavior.
Just as in 1989, what’s in the report is not intended for public consumption, but Senators will be allowed to read what the FBI has uncovered from interviews in recent days.
In other words, there could be leaks by both parties of material judged to help their own cause.
Back in the John Tower debate, some of the leaks took place right on the Senate floor, as Sen. John Glenn (D-OH) read the report, and then went to the Senate floor during a day of impassioned debate.
“Drunk, put him to bed, drank a fifth,” Glenn read from his notes what the FBI had gathered on Tower.
“Extremely inebriated, trouble walking, bizarre statements, had to be escorted,” Glenn continued. “Staggering, inebriated, walking out of a restaurant colliding with tables and chairs.”
You won’t find any of those words from Glenn in the Congressional Record on March 2, 1989, as the Ohio Democrat later expunged his descriptions gleaned from the FBI report – which was supposed to stay secret – after being challenged on the Senate floor by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
But while it’s not in the written record, those sound bites from Glenn are still on my cassette tapes from 1989, like the extraordinarily bitter exchange between Senate GOP Leader Robert Dole (R-KS), and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC).
“I want to quote the exact thing, ‘Mr. Alcohol Abuser,'” Dole said, staring at Hollings, quoting the South Carolina Democrat who was noted for his at times pointed tongue. “Is that not a vicious personal attack on a former colleague?”
“No, the record is he is an alcohol abuser,” countered Hollings, as he tangled with Dole until Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) interrupted in a bid to restore comity on the Senate floor.
In 2018, while there were tough speeches on the Senate floor, some of the more pointed exchanges have come via social media, as Democrats accused Republicans of covering up information related to Kavanaugh, while the GOP denounced it as ‘more false smears’ by Democrats.
A day after President Trump had ridiculed the allegations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who claims Kavanaugh sexually attacked her as a teenager, Mr. Trump defended Kavanaugh in a tweet, though he remained silent in public.
“The President’s style and tone is sometimes not all that helpful,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said with a smile on Fox News.
“His mockery of Dr Ford last night in Mississippi was wrong, but it doesn’t really surprise anyone – it’s who he is,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).
“The President’s comments were just plain wrong,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who is regarded as one of the important swing votes on Kavanaugh.
How it changes Thursday after Senators read the FBI file is unclear, as Republicans are seemingly all in line right now, except for Collins, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
While watching Senators talk about the Kavanaugh FBI file on Thursday, remind yourself that the Senate has been here before.
And take it from someone who prowled the halls of the Capitol in 1989 during the John Tower debate – it was not a pretty scene as Senators got their hands on the FBI details.