THE fight over the nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense left no clear winners in Washington. President Bush, Congress, the Pentagon, the public - all were shaken and a bit stunned as a result of this unusually bruising battle. But they were also left with a clearer view of the strengths and weaknesses of the confirmation process, the importance of character and judgment in presidential nominees (and in their inquisitors), and the magnitude of the job still to be done by the next Pentagon chief. Probably the best thing to come out of Mr. Tower's confirmation ordeal is the new focus on ethics and morality in public life, which in fact cannot be separated from personal conduct. To have a senator stand up and say he had seen not only Tower but other senators under the influence of alcohol while on the Senate floor is unprecedented.
Reporters gasped when Tower was asked if his statement that he'd never broken a pledge included marriage vows. But the question was very much to the point. One may draw an intellectual line between public and private conduct, but an individual's values underlie both.
Tower's ties to defense contractors not only proved as never before the potential for ``revolving door'' conflicts of interest. They also forced into public view the extent to which other senior appointed officials and legislators - including Tower's accusers - are beholden to special interests.
It's important to state that, once he tapped John Tower, George Bush was right to stick with his man and not cave in. Especially in an opening confrontation with Congress (and absent the smoking gun of disqualification, which never was found in Tower's case), a president has to show some spine in the early days of his tenure. It's as much up to him as anybody else to bring the honeymoon to an end.
Having done that, the President moved quickly and without bitterness to put it behind him and to choose in Congressman Dick Cheney a man well-respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. Those who say Bush is ``wounded'' by the Tower fight or that his administration is ``adrift'' are flat wrong. The federal government will move on from this, laws will be passed (or vetoed), budgets cobbled together, treaties signed.
At the same time, the defense secretary has to have the confidence of Congress and the American people. This is probably more true today than at any other time of peace. Tower didn't have it. Mr. Cheney apparently does.