In the mid to late 1990s, I was a media entrepreneur in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, where I launched American-style city business journals. I had moved to Budapest in 1992 with $500 in my pocket seeking a job and adventure—which I found in spades.
As a young man, I overly romanticized Europe because of the youthful experiences I had traveling and living there. By my early 30s, owning a business and being responsible for payrolls gradually pushed me out of the fog of liberalism. Experiences I had as a businessman in the former Soviet Bloc—dealing with leftist media types (many of whom worked for me), fighting with the bureaucracy and discovering the history of who had supported whom and when—inspired me to change my views.
Cap Weinberger played a big role in this transition for me—a transition that eventually led to my naming my first born Reagan.
As our media-business profile increased, Forbes magazine approached us to form an alliance to help market their brand in the region and to sell ads for their U.S.-based magazine. Forbes Vice Chairman Christopher "Kip" Forbes and Chairman Cap Weinberger traveled through Europe for that purpose, meeting with local politicians and CEOs. They asked us to help put on the "Kip and Cap" show in Central Europe.
One day we had a political breakfast scheduled with Marian Krzaklewski, Lech Walesa’s successor as head of Solidarity. I went to this small, private meeting with the former U.S. Defense secretary and Kip and their assistant on the top floor of the 40-story Warsaw Marriott, which provided a sweeping vista of the rebuilt Polish capital. The Solidarity leader sat down and immediately said to Weinberger, with a tear in his eye: "You and Mr. Reagan saved my country. Without Reagan, we would have been finished! Thank you!"
With much humility, Weinberger responded: "I was just doing my job—the job the President asked me to do."
Like a Rock Star
For me, this was a seminal moment. For much of my adult life, I had been cynically taught that Reagan and his team were not good men. To many in America and to most in Europe, Reagan represented a leadership bent on warmongering and wealth appropriation benefiting a capitalist elite. Sadly, the demagoguery directed at Reagan by the threatened power base of the left had been unending for young college students such as me. I simply went with the masses on this issue. But there, sitting next to me in Warsaw, Cap Weinberger was graceful, almost grandfatherly, responding to the Solidarity leader half his age with kindness and a great deal of humor. That day I finally gave way to the practical and real experiences my brain had been processing since arriving in Eastern Europe.
I was with Weinberger for a number of poignant moments, especially when he met Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski in the room where the Warsaw Pact had been signed and when he met the Czech President Vaclav Klaus in the room where the Warsaw Pact had been consigned to "the ash heap of history."
Everywhere we went, Cap Weinberger was treated like a rock star. People would often ask him for his autograph.
My favorite recollection is of an evening in Warsaw when we were leaving an event we hosted at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. I was sitting in the back of the limo next to Cap (we were buddies by then). As we glided down the driveway, I remembered that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who had put Poland under martial law in 1980, lived across the street from the ambassador’s house. "Cap, Gen. Jaruzelski lives right there," I said, pointing at the general’s front door, which was lit only by the lighted button on the buzzer. "Did you ever imagine that you would be in a position to be behind the Iron Curtain with the opportunity to simply walk up to that man’s door, ring his buzzer, and give him a piece of your mind?"
Weinberger flashed his characteristic, nonchalant grin. "Well," he said, "you’d just better tell the driver to pick it up a bit."
"Why?" I asked, simultaneously noticing that the thick-mustachioed, Walesa-like limo driver was looking at Cap into the rear-view mirror. Heretofore, this driver had not revealed he spoke English.
"The general does not like me very much," Weinberger answered.
Again I asked why.
"At one point the general actually attempted to petition the World Court to sue me in 1981 for defamation of character and other assorted legalistic charges," he said.
When I asked what in the world he could have said that got Jaruzelski so upset, the driver was hanging on every word.
"I called him a Russian general in a Polish uniform," said Weinberger.
With that, the Polish driver let out a vengeful belly laugh—right as we passed the former puppet-general’s ugly house. He then revved the engine and sped us away from the scene—all of us laughing across time and cultures.
In a quiet moment, I asked Cap what it felt like to have all the years he committed to fighting the Soviets work out for the best and to have his efforts so publicly appreciated by so many. He said he wished that his Cold-War warrior friend Ronald Reagan could have been there with him to see it all. I did, too. Rest in peace, Cap. Thank you for having the strength of your convictions that brought the rest of us the benefits of the peace.