Wyche Fowler served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1977-86) and U.S. Senate (1987-92) and as ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1996-2001). He established a progressive voting record in the Congress on domestic issues, including strong support for civil rights and environmental legislation. He also concentrated on foreign policy and intelligence issues, and was known for his advocacy of legislative accountability over covert action and other forms of U.S. clandestine activities abroad, as well as his promotion of international democracy and human rights.
A seventh-generation Georgian with ancestors from the Augusta area, W. Wyche Fowler Jr. was born on October 6, 1940, in Atlanta. As a boy he could pick a country guitar and sing every major Presbyterian hymn through the fourth stanza. With these skills he won a statewide talent contest as a country singer on the television program Stars of Tomorrow. Brenda Lee also won and went on to vocal stardom. The two were so popular they were asked to perform “The Old Rugged Cross” together, with the eleven-year-old Fowler taking the high notes. In high school he played basketball and twice won state cross-country championships in track.
Fowler earned an A.B. degree in English from North Carolina’s Davidson College in 1962. Serving in the military from 1962 to 1964, he was stationed at the Pentagon as an army intelligence officer. In off-hours he volunteered to work for the freshman congressman from Atlanta’s Fifth District, Charles Weltner, a liberal Democrat. After his tour of duty at the Pentagon, Fowler signed on full time with Weltner and rose to the top position of chief of staff. The two men became close friends. When Weltner decided to forgo a third term rather than run on the same ticket as the right-wing gubernatorial candidate Lester Maddox, Fowler returned to Atlanta to study law at Emory University, earning a J.D. degree in 1969.
During his first year of law school, Fowler approached Atlanta’s mayor, Ivan Allen Jr., with an offer to act as the mayor’s ombudsman in the evening hours. In that way, Fowler argued, the mayor’s office could help the people of Atlanta handle problems like broken street lights even when government offices were closed. Allen allowed the energetic young law student to try his hand at the idea. Throughout 1968-69, the media frequently referred to Fowler as the “night mayor of City Hall.”
Fowler ran for city council in 1970 under the banner “Night Mayor Runs for Alderman.” At age twenty-nine and still in law school, he won his first bid for office, defeating a thirty-year incumbent. Four years later, council members chose him over the well-known African American activist Hosea Williams to serve as their president, a position he held until his election in 1977 to the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout his period of service on the city council, he also practiced law in Atlanta.
Running in the race for Atlanta’s Fifth District, Fowler made his first bid for a congressional seat in 1972. He lost by a wide margin, against popular civil rights leader Andrew Young, but he won the seat on a second try when Young left Congress to join U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s administration in Washington, D.C. Fowler became the only white congressman in the United States to be reelected four times by a constituency that had become (by virtue of redistricting) 65 percent Black; he defeated the legendary civil rights activist John Lewis, who represented the Fifth District only after Fowler left to run for the U.S. Senate.
In the U.S. House the congenial Fowler managed to win a seat on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee after only one term in office, bucking the leadership’s slate of candidates and going straight to all the members of the Democratic caucus for votes. He also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Congressional Arts Caucus, and the newly created Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. On the Intelligence Committee he drafted what would eventually become known as the Boland Amendment (after the panel’s chair, Edward P. Boland of Massachusetts), which sought to prohibit covert action in Nicaragua by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Attempts to bypass this law would engulf U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s administration in the Iran-contra scandal of 1986-87.
In 1986 Fowler defeated incumbent Republican Mack Mattingly to win election to the U.S. Senate with 51 percent of the vote. No Atlantan had ever before won a Senate seat. He succeeded against long odds—he trailed by twenty-four points in the polls just three weeks before the election—by dint of his humor and folksy stories, personal magnetism, and indefatigable campaigning. He traveled to all of Georgia’s 159 counties and held 200 town meetings.
During his first days in the Senate, Fowler promised to support Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine in a three-way race for the majority leader and seconded his nomination. Mitchell won and repaid Fowler’s gamble by awarding him a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee. Mitchell also created a new position for Fowler—assistant floor leader—that catapulted the rookie into the upper reaches of the party hierarchy. Fowler also served on the committees on budget, energy, agriculture, and intelligence, as well as on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The remarkable upward trajectory of his career came crashing down in his bid for reelection to the Senate in 1992. Fowler seemed to lack the same enthusiasm he had displayed in 1986, and some observers found the campaign devoid of a unifying theme. Voters were unclear about Fowler’s accomplishments in his first term and about his goals for a second. His vote against the war in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and for a tax increase hurt him with white male voters, and his vote for the controversial Clarence Thomas nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 led to disaffection among white pro-choice women, who distrusted the antiabortion Thomas. The substantial federal money Fowler had brought to Georgia and the work he had done in the Senate on such issues as health care, education, jobs, intelligence reform, the environment, alternative energies, and historical preservation seemed to matter little in the absence of his own personal zeal for the campaign.
Overconfidence also played a role in Fowler’s loss. He underestimated his Republican challenger, Paul Coverdell, whom he had defeated previously when Coverdell tried to unseat him in a race for the Fifth District House seat. This time Coverdell proved to be a formidable opponent.
Fowler also appeared preoccupied with the health of his old friend Congressman Weltner, who died in August of the election year. Earlier that spring Fowler interrupted his campaign planning and took the ailing Weltner on a trip to Turkey and Iraq, where they explored religious and archaeological sites. During August he began each day with a hospital visit to comfort Weltner, much to the dismay of his campaign staff. On Election Day Fowler fell short of avoiding a runoff with Coverdell by a mere 17,000 votes (0.6 percent). In the runoff Coverdell edged into victory by less than 51 percent of the vote.
After his defeat Fowler served on the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community (1995-96). There he took a leading role in criticizing the failures of CIA covert action abroad and sought to cut waste from the intelligence budget. He also taught politics during this period as a visiting fellow in the Institute of Politics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1996 U.S. president Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, where he served for four and a half years. Three attempts were made on his life by terrorists in the region, each thwarted by close cooperation between U.S. and Saudi security personnel. Despite these perilous conditions, Fowler views his ambassadorial experience as “the most fascinating period of my life.” He spent his time helping to protect the safety of the 6,000 American troops in the kingdom, assisting the 50,000 U.S. citizens conducting business there, and guiding the day-to-day activities of the 300 Americans working in the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. Ambassador Fowler became a forceful proponent of close U.S.-Saudi ties. The Federal Bureau of Investigation awarded him its highest civilian honor, the Jefferson Cup, for his assistance in combating terrorism and for helping solve terrorist crimes against the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia.
Following his stint as ambassador, Fowler joined a number of corporate and academic boards, including those of the Carter Center at Emory University and the Morehouse School of Medicine. He is board chair of the Middle East Institute, a nonprofit research foundation in Washington, D.C., devoted to the mission of increasing knowledge in the United States about the Middle East. He practices law in the nation’s capital for the firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer, and Murphy and lectures widely around the nation and overseas.