10 Unsuccessful Senate Confirmations

Senators, like California's Diane Feinstein (shown during a confirmation hearing in 2008), aren't always friendly to nominees.
Senators, like California's Diane Feinstein (shown during a confirmation hearing in 2008), aren't always friendly to nominees.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Undergoing the Senate confirmation process for a presidentially appointed post can be grueling. There are reams of forms to fill out: Full financial disclosure, including all income and debts, is required. Senators scrutinize every aspect of a nominee's personal history; one standard questionnaire asks for the name and contact information of a high school classmate as a reference, which can be difficult if you're 30 years past graduation day. A questionnaire circulated by the incoming Obama administration in 2008 asked nominees if they'd ever sent an embarrassing e-mail [source: Calmes]. The FBI conducts a full investigation to establish the veracity of the information disclosed on these forms.

After all of that, there's the Senate confirmation hearing. The Constitution gives the Senate responsibility to "give advice and consent" on presidential nominations for posts ranging from cabinet secretaries to ambassadors to customs officials [source: Cornell]. Lower posts had been rubber-stamped in the past, but nearly every presidential appointment since has faced scrutiny to avoid presidential attempts to load agencies with cronies and supporters.

Nonetheless, modern presidents have thousands of appointments to make. The vast majority -- but not all -- is confirmed by the Senate. Here are 10 exceptions we found interesting, in chronological order.

10
Benjamin Fishbourn
George Washington, the first president, was also the first to have an appointment rejected.
George Washington, the first president, was also the first to have an appointment rejected.

Benjamin Fishbourn, a naval officer from Georgia, was among the first nominees to the nascent federal government in 1789. President George Washington nominated Fishbourn to a minor post as naval officer in charge of the port of Savannah, Ga. Every other nomination of Washington's had been approved by the Senate except Fishbourn's, making the naval officer the first person in American history to endure an unsuccessful nomination.

What did Fishbourn do to earn such ignominy? It turned out that Fishbourn had apparently previously insulted Georgia senator James Gunn. To make matters worse, Gunn had another nominee in mind. Gunn led the charge against Fishbourn's nomination, which was quickly sunk.

The rejection of Fishbourn -- in addition to it being the first -- is notable for two other reasons. It established the custom of senatorial courtesy, a tradition which continues today. Under it, senators rely on the judgment of colleagues from an unknown nominee's home state. A senator from the nominee's state can effectively give the thumbs up (or down), and the rest of the Senate follows suit. Secondly, Washington sent a letter to Congress asking why they'd rejected a man he found "irreproachable" [source: Washington]. Before Congress could respond, however, Washington withdrew his request for an explanation, establishing the tradition that the president needn't furnish a reason for nomination, or the Senate for rejection.

9
Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing, the luckless nominee.
Caleb Cushing, the luckless nominee.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Caleb Cushing has the dubious distinction of being blocked by the Senate from presidential appointment more than any other person in the history of the United States. Cushing was rejected not once, not twice, but four times.

Cushing was nominated to become President John Tyler's treasury secretary in March 1843. Both men faced stiff opposition. Tyler had broken with the Whig party that had elected him to the presidency two years earlier, and the Whigs controlled the Senate. Cushing was himself a member of the House and had alternately supported, then voted against, Tyler's anti-Whig vetoes. Not amused with his flip-flopping, the Senate voted against Cushing's nomination. Tyler resubmitted Cushing as his treasury nominee, and again it was defeated. Later that same day, Tyler again resubmitted Cushing's name, and again, the Senate rebuffed him -- for the third time in a single day

Unfortunately, Caleb Cushing's streak of political bad luck would continue. Thirty years later, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated him for chief justice of the Supreme Court. This time, it was the Republicans who sunk him by leveling allegations that Cushing advised Confederate president Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. Cushing eventually left Washington, appointed by President Grant as ambassador to Spain.

8
Ebenezer Hoar
Under the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (above), Ebenezer Hoar couldn't make the jump to full Supreme Court justice.
Under the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (above), Ebenezer Hoar couldn't make the jump to full Supreme Court justice.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

In addition to his excellent name, Ebenezer Hoar deserves remembrance for being a qualified nominee whose appointment was blocked for doing the right thing. A Harvard-educated attorney, Hoar was a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice and served under President Ulysses S. Grant as attorney general. In that position, he had openly and consistently criticized members of the Senate who favored politically biased Supreme Court appointments. Hoar wanted to fill the court with extremely well-qualified and sage members, rather than those who could play along with Congress.

When Grant submitted Hoar's name to Congress in 1869 for an appointment as Supreme Court justice, the senators Hoar had criticized so publicly cobbled together enough votes to block him taking his seat with a 24 to 33 vote [source: U.S. Senate]. The move was somewhat ironic, as Hoar met even his own strict qualifications for the seat. Even worse, the Senate's rejection of Hoar's nomination to the Supreme Court revealed enough acrimony between him and the Senate that President Grant dismissed Hoar from his post as attorney general.

7
Abe Fortas
Abe Fortas in 1963, as an adviser to President Johnson.
Abe Fortas in 1963, as an adviser to President Johnson.
Al Fenn/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It's not that Abe Fortas was an unqualified candidate. As an associate justice of the Supreme Court, he was capable of filling the role as chief justice. Unfortunately, some bad moves by Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who nominated him to the position in 1968, doomed his chances.

Johnson erroneously assumed that Fortas would be confirmed with little controversy. After all, he was counting on the support of his Senate mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia, as well as that of Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. Unfortunately, Johnson had managed to irritate fellow Democrat Russell by failing to deliver a federal judicial appointment for one of Russell's supporters. That, combined with appointing an unqualified friend to fill Fortas' associate seat once his nomination was confirmed, was too much presumptive arrogance for the Senate to bear. The body rejected Fortas' nomination, which would prove to be a good move later on. Fortas maintained his original associate justice seat until he was forced to resign early on in the Nixon administration under allegations of questionable financial dealings.

6
G. Harrold Carswell
Nebraska senator Roman Hruska (center), gave an impassioned speech on the virtues of mediocrity.
Nebraska senator Roman Hruska (center), gave an impassioned speech on the virtues of mediocrity.
Hank Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

G. Harrold Carswell, a Florida judge of questionable experience and qualifications, served as a thumb to the nose of the U.S. Senate, sent courtesy of President Richard Nixon. Nixon nominated Carswell after the Senate rejected Clement Haynsworth, Nixon's first choice to fill Abe Fortas' seat on the Supreme Court.

The Senate rejected Carswell after allegations of racism surfaced. Ironically, the most memorable player in this entire saga wasn't Carswell, but an advocate of his, Nebraska senator Roman Hruska. During Senate debate over Carswell's nomination, Hruska gave a memorable, if unhelpful, speech on Carswell's behalf. Hruska remarked: "Even if he is mediocre there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to representation, aren't they, and a little chance?" [source: U.S. Senate].

5
Theodore Sorensen
Theodore Sorensen during happier times, with John Kennedy.
Theodore Sorensen during happier times, with John Kennedy.
Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

When President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, the Director of Central Intelligence, a man named George H.W. Bush (who would later become the 41st president of the United States) resigned his position. To replace Bush, Carter chose former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. This relationship was great for establishing political connections, but not necessarily for the experience that a qualified CIA director should possess.

To make matters worse, Sorensen helped sabotage his own nomination when he hinted to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (which provides legislative oversight of the CIA and holds confirmation hearings for top CIA officials), that he didn't take the member senators very seriously. When asked to appear before the committee prior to the hearing, Sorensen responded, "I'm pretty busy. I don't think I have the time" [source: Sinder]. Faced with the ire of the Senate committee, he withdrew his nomination shortly thereafter.

4
Robert Bork
Robert Bork.
Robert Bork.
Ron Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork carried on the long-standing tradition of Supreme Court nominees rejected by the Senate in the final year of a presidency. The Senate tends to be uncomfortable with an outgoing president installing an appointee into a lifelong position of great power, but Bork also broke new ground in the public realm. Both right-wing supporters and left-wing opponents launched publicity campaigns for and against Bork's nomination. It was a wrestling match to characterize Bork either as a raging conservative who would overturn flashpoint rulings like Roe v. Wade or as a wise and level-headed moderate. The left wing won.

A month before Bork's hearing, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, publicly said he planned on voting against the Bork nomination [source: Lamar, et al]. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who vehemently opposed Bork's nomination, said in a televised speech, "Robert Bork's America is a land where women will be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police would break down citizens doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution" [source: Tushnet]. It went downhill from there.

To his credit, Bork didn't withdraw his name. Instead, he endured a painful confirmation hearing before ultimately being rejected. Afterward he said he was "glad the debate took place" [source: Greenhouse]. He went on to become a political and judicial critic and commentator.

3
John Tower
John Tower at his 1989 Senate confirmation hearing.
John Tower at his 1989 Senate confirmation hearing.
Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

John Tower was only four years into his retirement from a 24-year career as a Texas senator when newly elected President George H.W. Bush nominated him for secretary of defense in 1989. Four years, it turned out, wasn't quite long enough to purge the Senate of Tower's legion of enemies.

Tower's former colleagues, who'd been the recipients of Tower's abusive legislative tactics in the Senate, "burned [him] at the stake," Tower later wrote of the confirmation hearings in a memoir [source: Waldman]. The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Georgia senator Sam Nunn, laid bare all of Tower's past indiscretions, including excessive drinking and womanizing. Tower's hearings generated intense media exposure and the fact that he'd been pilloried by the same Senate committee he'd chaired before his retirement left Tower bitter [source: Waldman].

Tower's nomination was rejected by a 47 to 53 vote. He became the first initial Cabinet nominee in a new presidency in U.S. history to be rejected [source: U.S. Senate].

2
Dr. Henry Foster
Dr. Henry Foster during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Dr. Henry Foster during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Luke Farazza/AFP/Getty Images

In 1994, President Bill Clinton asked his surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders to resign. Elders, a controversial figure among conservatives for her views on hot topics like drugs and abortion, expended her last bit of political capital on her response to a question about masturbation. Elders favored teaching it in schools: "We have tried ignorance for a very long time, and it's time we try education," she said [source: Jet].

Clinton nominee as Elders' successor was Dr. Henry Foster, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Tennessee. Foster became the subject of intense senatorial debate within the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee (the group responsible for confirming surgeons general) over his past as a physician. Foster told the committee that he'd performed 39 abortions during his career, which left a bad taste in the mouths of pro-life Senate conservatives, led by Kansas senator Robert Dole.

Dole said the conservatives took exception at Clinton's efforts at painting "pro-life supporters as extremists" in an effort to garner support for Elders' nomination by turning the tables on the opposition [source: Jehl]. The United States ultimately went without a surgeon general for four years, until 1998, when the Senate confirmed Dr. David Satcher.

1
Linda Chavez
Linda Chavez withdraws her name from consideration for labor secretary in January 2001.
Linda Chavez withdraws her name from consideration for labor secretary in January 2001.
Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images

Newly elected president George W. Bush's choice for Labor Secretary when he took office in 2001 turned out to be a contentious one. Bush nominated Linda Chavez, a conservative columnist and author and founder of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who vocally and staunchly opposed organized labor unions.

Chavez's appointment revealed the very active role the media plays in modern politics. Within days of her nomination in January 2001, news reports surfaced of her relationship with a Guatemalan woman she knew was residing in the United States illegally and whom Chavez allowed to live in her home for two years in the early 1990s. The key issue was whether money Chavez had given the woman was charity to help a woman in need, as Chavez alleged, or if it amounted to wages for an illegal immigrant housekeeper [source: Schmitt and McLean]. The issue was never fully resolved. The media spotlight caused Chavez to withdraw her name from consideration one week after she was nominated, blaming the "'search and destroy' politics of Washington" and Democrats seeking retribution after their narrow defeat in the 2000 presidential election [source: CNN].

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