Tower, John Goodwin (1925–1991)

By: Susan Eason

Type: Biography

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: July 1, 2016

John Tower, United States senator, was born on September 29, 1925, in Houston, Texas, to Joe and Beryl (Goodwin) Tower. His father was a Methodist minister. Tower grew up in the various East Texas communities where his father preached, graduated from Beaumont High School in the spring of 1942, and entered Southwestern University in the fall of the same year. By June 1943 he had enlisted in the United States Navy; he served during World War II on an amphibious gunboat in the western Pacific and was discharged as a seaman first class in 1946. He remained active in the naval reserve from 1946 until 1989, when he retired with the rank of master chief boatswain's mate. After the war, Tower returned to Southwestern University, where he received a B.A. in political science in 1948. He worked for a time during and after college as a radio announcer at country and western station KTAE in Taylor. By spring of 1949 he had moved to Dallas and enrolled in graduate courses at Southern Methodist University. While in Dallas, he also worked as an insurance agent. He completed his coursework at Southern Methodist University in Spring of 1951 and accepted a position as assistant professor of political science at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, a job he held until 1960. In 1952 and 1953 Tower continued his graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. While in London, he conducted field research on the organization of the Conservative party in Britain, which he used for his master's thesis, The Conservative Worker in Britain. He received his M.A. in political science from Southern Methodist University in 1953. In March of 1952 he married Lou Bullington in Wichita Falls. They had three daughters during their years in Wichita Falls; they were divorced in 1976, and Tower married Lilla Burt Cummings in 1977. They were divorced in 1987.

In Wichita Falls, Tower became active in the Republican party of Texas. In 1954 he ran an unsuccessful race for state representative from the Eighty-first District, and in 1956 he led Texas as a delegate to the Republican national convention. By 1960 he was sufficiently well known to be nominated at the state Republican convention to run against Lyndon B. Johnson for senator in the November general election. Johnson easily won the election but was also elected vice president. William Blakely was appointed to fill the seat that Johnson resigned, and a special election was slated for the spring. Tower led in this election and beat Blakely in the runoff on May 27. As the first Republican senator elected in Texas since 1870, he was seen by many as heralding the arrival of two-party politics in Texas. He was reelected to the Senate in 1966, 1972, and 1978. Upon assuming his Senate seat, Tower was assigned to two major committees: Labor and Public Welfare, and Banking and Currency. He served on the former until 1964. He remained on the Banking and Currency Committee, which in 1971 became the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, throughout his Senate career. In 1965 Tower was assigned to the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which where he served continuously until his retirement; he was chairman from 1981 to 1984. He also served on the Joint Committee on Defense Production from 1963 until 1977 and on the Senate Republican Policy Committee in 1962 and from 1969 until 1984. He was elected chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee from 1973 to 1984. In his twenty-four year Senate career, Tower influenced a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he worked to strengthen and modernize the nation's defenses. He was widely respected for his skills at guiding legislation through Congress. He worked to stimulate economic growth, improve opportunities for small business, improve transportation systems, and encourage strong financial institutions and systems. He was also concerned with promoting prosperity in agriculture, the energy industry, the fishing and maritime industries, and other areas of commerce particularly important to Texans.

Senator Tower took a leadership role in Republican politics in Texas and on the national level. He supported Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, headed Richard M. Nixon's Key Issues Committee in 1968, supported Gerald Ford for president in 1976, and worked for the Reagan-Bush tickets in 1980 and 1984, and the Bush-Quayle ticket in 1988. He was a member of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1962–63, 1969–70, and 1973–74 and was its chairman in 1969–70. He was a Texas delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1980. He also chaired the National Security and Foreign Policy Platform Subcommittee in 1972, and was chairman of the National Republican Platform Committee in 1980. Tower also maintained close ties with his alma mater, Southwestern University, and served on its board of trustees from 1968 through 1991. In 1964 he received an honorary doctorate degree from the university and was named distinguished alumnus in 1968. The Tower-Hester Chair of Political Science, named for Tower and his former professor George C. Hester, was inaugurated at Southwestern University in 1975.

Tower retired from the Senate on January 3, 1985. Two weeks later President Ronald Reagan appointed him chief United States negotiator at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva. Tower served for fifteen months in this role and gained the Soviets' respect for his negotiating skills, knowledge of the issues, and mastery of technical details. In April 1986 he resigned to pursue personal business. Tower was distinguished lecturer in political science at Southern Methodist University from 1986 until 1988 and chaired Tower, Eggers, and Greene Consulting, Incorporated of Dallas and Washington from 1987 to 1991. Reagan again called Tower into government service in November 1986, when he appointed him to chair the President's Special Review Board to study the actions of the National Security Council and its staff during the Iran-Contra affair. The board, which became known as the Tower Commission, issued its report on February 26, 1987. In 1989 Tower was President George Bush's choice to become secretary of defense, but the Senate did not confirm his nomination because of his conservative political views and alleged excessive drinking and womanizing. The charges, counter-charges, and accusations of the hearings are chronicled in Tower's 1991 book, Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir. In 1990 President Bush named Tower chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Senator Tower died, along with his daughter Marian, in a commuter plane crash near New Brunswick, Georgia, on April 5, 1991.

John R. Knaggs, Two-Party Texas: The John Tower Era, 1961–1984 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1986). U.S. Congress, Memorial Tribute: John Goodwin Tower, 1925–1991, Late a Senator from Texas (Washington: GPO, 1994).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • Wichita Falls

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Susan Eason, “Tower, John Goodwin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

February 1, 1996
July 1, 2016

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: