Tower was active in politics as a child; at the age of thirteen, he passed out handbills for the campaign of liberal Democrat and future U.S. Senator Ralph William Yarborough while Yarborough was running for Texas attorney general. Yarborough and Tower would later be paired as Texas's Senate delegation, though of opposing political perspectives. He entered Southwestern University in Georgetown (Williamson County near Austin) that same year and met future U.S. President and political opponent Lyndon Baines Johnson on a campus visit while Johnson was the local congressman.
Tower left college in the summer of 1943 to serve in the Pacific theater during World War II on an LCS(L) amphibious gunboat. He returned to Texas after the war in 1946, discharged as a seaman first class, and completed his undergraduate courses at Southwestern University, having graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of arts degree in political science. Tower worked as a radio announcer for a Country music station in Taylor, east of Austin, during college and for some time afterward. Tower, however; remained in the Naval Reserve and achieved the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer retiring in 1989.
In 1949, he moved to Dallas to take graduate courses at Southern Methodist University and to work parttime as an insurance agent. He left SMU in 1951 and entered academia as an assistant professor at Midwestern University (now Midwestern State University) in Wichita Falls. In 1952 and 1953, he pursued graduate coursework at the London School of Economics and conducted field research on the organization of the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. His research was presented in his thesis, The Conservative Worker in Britain. He received his Master of Arts degree from SMU in 1953. While a professor at Midwestern University, Tower met Lou Bullington, whom he married in 1952. Lou, a California native, was the organist at Tower's church. She was five years his senior.
During this same period John Tower established his core political relationships which were managed in Wichita Falls by Pierce Langford III, an interesting individual who also became a key figure in the financing of the British offshore pirate radio stations that were created by Don Pierson of Eastland, Texas between 1964 and 1967. John Tower put in an appearance at the offices Swinging Radio England on Curzon Street, London.
Following his divorce John Tower married Lilla Burt Cummings in 1977. In 1987, John and Lilla Tower underwent what the New York Times termed a "bitter divorce," during which his wife accused him of "womanizing" and excessive drinking, allegations denied by Tower. A former assistant of Tower's wrote that "Tower never lost his capacity for civility. When Lila [sic] was dieing [sic] with various afflictions, Tower sent a bouquet of roses to her in her hospital room. She refused to accept the roses. Still, I never heard him say an evil word about her.
Johnson, the incumbent senator and famous nationwide as the Senate Majority Leader, won the election against Tower. As Kennedy's running mate, Johnson was also seeking the vice presidency in the same election and Tower's campaign slogan was "double your pleasure, double your fun — vote against Johnson two times, not one. Tower was supported by prominent Democratic former Governor Coke Stevenson, the loser by 87 votes to LBJ in the 1948 Democratic Senate primary runoff. Tower polled 927,653 votes (41.1 percent) to Johnson's 1,306,605 votes (58 percent).
Johnson became Vice President for John F. Kennedy, and Governor Price Daniel, Sr., appointed fellow Democrat William A. Blakley of Dallas to Johnson's Senate seat, pending a special election to be held in May 1961. Blakley, a conservative Democrat, had also been appointed by Daniel in 1957 to succeed Daniel in the Senate when Daniel was elected governor. Considerable numbers of liberal Texas Democrats opposed the conservative Blakely and did not vote. The conservative vote was divided. Texas conservatives, traditionally "yellow dog Democrats," had already voted for Republicans in the 1950s, when Democrat Governor Allan Shivers had aligned with Eisenhower, rather than the national Democratic candidate Adlai E. Stevenson in a movement that was jokingly called "Shivercrats."
In his second Senate campaign in a matter of months, Tower charged that the national Democratic Party, represented by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, was far to the left of typical Texas Democrats. The initial round of voting in the special election gave Tower 327,308 votes (30.9 percent) to Blakely's 191,818 (18.1 percent). The other contenders were Democrats Jim Wright, a congressman from Fort Worth and a future U.S. House Speaker, 171,328 (16.2 percent), state Attorney General Will Wilson (who later became a Republican and served in the Nixon Justice Department), 121,961 (11.5 percent), former state representative and liberal lawyer Maury Maverick, Jr., of San Antonio, 104,922 (9.9 percent), and then state Senator (and future Congressman) Henry B. Gonzalez, also of San Antonio, 97,659 (9.2 percent). There were some 65 other candidates, enticed by a filing fee at the time of only $50 for special elections, who polled a total of 4.2 percent of the vote.
Tower went on to win the runoff against Blakley. His election was historic: (1) first Republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction, (2) the third Republican from the former Confederacy since Reconstruction, and (3) the first Republican from the former Confederacy ever to to win popular election. The final total was 448,217 votes (50.6 percent) for Tower and 437,872 (49.4 percent) for Blakely, a margin of 10,343.
In the Senate, Tower was assigned to two major committees: the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Tower left the Labor and Public Welfare Committee in 1964, though in 1965 he was named to the important Armed Services Committee, in which he served until his retirement. He was chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1984. Tower 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. Tower served as chairman of the latter from 1973 until his retirement from the Senate.
As a member and later chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Tower was a strong proponent of modernizing the armed forces. In the Banking and Currency Committee, he was a champion of small businesses and worked to improve the national infrastructure and financial institutions. Tower supported Texas economic interests, working to improve the business environment of the energy, agricultural, and fishing and maritime sectors.
Though Tower and President Johnson were political rivals, Tower offered support to Johnson on Vietnam. Johnson often invited Tower to fly back to Texas with him on Air Force One. Johnson, in one of his occasional moods of melancholy, once told Tower that he had given him more support on the war than the whole Democratic party had done.
Tower broke with many conservatives by his support of abortion rights. He quarreled with State Senator Henry Grover of Houston, the 1972 Republican gubernatorial nominee, to such an extent that the intraparty divisions may have contributed to Grover's 100,000-vote defeat by Democrat Dolph Briscoe even as Tower was winning a third Senate term over the Democrat Harold Barefoot Sanders by nearly 311,000 ballots.
Tower also angered conservatives by his support of the nomination of President Gerald Ford, as the Republican nominee in 1976 over former California Governor Ronald W. Reagan. Reagan won every Texas delegate in the first ever Texas Republican presidential primary but narrowly lost the party nomination to Ford at the convention held that year in Kansas City.
Tower developed a close relationship with John McCain, who was then a Navy liaison to the Senate. Tower was instrumental in helping McCain win his first election, by raising money and obtaining support from popular Arizona Republicans.
Tower was reelected three times - in 1966, 1972, and 1978, all of which were good years for Republican candidates. In 1966, Tower defeated Democratic Attorney General Waggoner Carr, 842,501 (56.7 percent) to 643,855 (43.3 percent). Despite the victory, he lost the majority of Texas's rural districts. He won every county that cast more than 10,000 votes except for McLennan County (Waco) in central Texas. In numerous counties, the 1961 or the 1966 Tower election was the first in which that county had supported for a Republican candidate.
In 1972, Tower defeated Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr. (1925-2008), a Dallas lawyer who had formerly served in the Texas House of Representatives, as a U.S. attorney under President John F. Kennedy, as a deputy attorney general and counselor to President Johnson, and thereafter as a U.S. District Judge in Dallas, under appointment of President Jimmy Carter, from 1979 until his death. Tower prevailed, 1,822,877 (54.7 percent of two-party vote) to Sanders's 1,511,948 (45.3 percent of two-party vote). There were more than 79,000 votes cast for others. Several of the "Democrats for Nixon" organizers in Texas made it clear that they were Sanders supporters for the Senate. Sanders ran far ahead of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in the state. Tower tried to tie Sanders to former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who donated $2,000 to the Sanders campaign. In 1974, Tower supported the Republican former mayor of Lubbock Jim Granberry for governor. Granberry had defeated "New Right" candidate Odell McBrayer in the party primary but was then crushed by incumbent Governor Dolph Briscoe. It was a disastrous Republican year, both nationally and in Texas.
In 1978, Tower ran in a close campaign. He edged out Democratic Congressman Robert Krueger of New Braunfels in Comal County in the Hill Country, 1,151,376 (50.3 percent of two-party vote) to 1,139,149 (49.7 percent of two-party vote). Tower's plurality over Krueger was 12,227 votes, but because there were another 22,015 votes cast for other nominal contenders, Tower prevailed with less than 50 percent of the total vote. This was the campaign in which Tower refused to shake Krueger's hand at a candidate forum on grounds that his opponent had spread untruths about Tower's personal life. (Krueger later served in the Senate on an interim appointment from Governor Dorothy Ann Willis Richards from January to June 1993.)
Tower retired from the Senate after nearly twenty-four years in office. He continued to be involved in national politics, advising the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Two weeks after his leaving office, Tower was named chief United States negotiator at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva. He demonstrated an effective handling of the technical issues of arms reduction. Tower resigned from this office in 1987, and for a time was a distinguished professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, from which he had received his M.A. He became a consultant with Tower, Eggers, and Greene Consulting from 1987 to 1991.
In November 1986, President Reagan asked Tower to chair the President's Special Review Board to study the action 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. The report was highly critical of the Reagan administration and of the National Security Council's dealings with both Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras.
In 1989, Tower was President George H. W. Bush's choice to become Secretary of Defense. The United States Senate did not confirm his nomination due to a variety of factors. One charge was that Tower had too many ties to defense contractors. Some Democrats used the nomination to retaliate against President George H.W. Bush for what they viewed as 'negative' (though successful) campaign tactics against their nominee, Michael Dukakis. Others, including the conservative organizer Paul Weyrich, accused Tower of extramarital affairs and heavy drinking. Many conservatives also opposed Tower's nomination because of his pro-choice views. One of Tower's leading critics was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat. Instead, Tower was named chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Dick Cheney, then a Representative from Wyoming and the House minority whip, was later confirmed as secretary of defense.
Lou Bullington Tower died at the age of eighty-one in a Dallas hospital in August 2001, with her two surviving daughters at her side. She is buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park. The personable Lou Tower was widely credited with having helped John Tower win his early Senate races. Her obituary said that she was preceded in death by her parents and several other individuals, including "Senator John Tower," with no mention of Tower as her ex-husband.