EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series from Longview’s Dr. John Coppedge, who grew up in Cuero, where he first became aware of the remarkable life story of Ken Towery, former Japanese prisoner of war, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and adviser to politicians and presidents.
As a newcomer to Washington in 1963, Ken Towery’s personal skills and relationships with Texas politicians enabled him to help the state’s new Republican senator work effectively with the governor and other elected officials in Texas, all of whom were Democrats.
He helped facilitate a good working relationship between his boss, Sen. John Tower, and the other U.S. senator from Texas, Ralph Yarbrough.
Even after leaving Tower’s staff, Towery remained a trusted adviser and behind-the-scenes player in Republican politics over the next 20 years. He ran Tower’s re-election campaigns and Richard Nixon’s 1968 Texas campaign.
He had a ringside seat and frequently played a major role in the inner workings of Texas and national politics. When John Tower, Anne Armstrong, Peter O’Donnell and a few others were giving birth to the modern Republican Party in Texas, Towery was the midwife.
He also played on an international field.
A conservative in the mold of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and John Tower, Towery’s belief is that communism is evil, and he played a role in bringing about the demise of the old Soviet Union and ending the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Though Reagan rightly receives much of the recognition for that accomplishment, Towery was a major participant through his roles as deputy director and assistant director of the United States Information Agency.
“The years I spent at USIA were among the most gratifying ‘employed’ years of my life,” Towery has said. “They were years I could go home at night feeling I had struck a blow for liberty, for mankind … And there was the feeling that our labors were directed toward the interests of the nation as a whole, not merely toward the interests of political parties.”
He traveled the world in his USIA job, despite lingering health issues stemming from his long-ago captivity during World War II in a Japanese prison camp.
In 1976, he and wife, Louise, returned to Austin and began a successful political consulting business. Towery’s understanding of the political process and campaign strategy was exceptional.
Tower and Towery were heavily involved in the Goldwater campaign in 1964. On the eve of that election, Sen. Tower asked Towery how he thought it was going. Reluctantly, he answered: “I think we are going to get our butts kicked.”
He was right. It was one of the biggest electoral landslides in history with Johnson demolishing Goldwater.
Towery then ran John Tower’s 1966 Senate campaign. On the eve of that election, Tower asked him how he thought it would come out. Towery said he thought they would win by 200,000 votes. The margin was 198,746.
Another example of Towery’s political acumen was his growing conviction that for Sen. Tower to win re-election, he needed to cultivate traditional Democratic voters. Furthermore, he said, the best place to get those votes was from Hispanics in South Texas. Having grown up in the Texas Valley, Towery knew Hispanics to be hard-working, proud, family oriented and at their core very conservative people.
He talked Tower into campaigning along the Texas border, where he astounded many locals by even being there. Republican politicians had never before thought to campaign in the region, and Democratic politicians went there only rarely, taking that vote for granted.
At Towery’s urging, though, Tower went to the Valley. He treated the people with respect and asked for their advice and support. To the consternation of the local Democratic Party leaders, the response was positive and Tower did better there on election day than any Republican had ever done. Today, Hispanic outreach is a major priority of the Texas Republican Party — one that came from Towery 50 years ago.
In 1981, Towery opened another new chapter in his life when he was appointed by Reagan to the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a body he served for 10 years and of which he was twice elected chairman.
Towery has said his conservative views would be out of place in today’s politically correct Washington. He is supportive of Voice of America broadcasts around the world but said he believes the American government should not be in the domestic media business.
Towery also served as assistant to University of Texas System Chancellor Charles LeMaistre, where he learned about an even more brutal type of politics — the cutthroat world of academia.
Coming Friday: Back to the newspaper business.