Cap Weinberger: Brilliant, Humorous Patriot

I first met Caspar Weinberger in 1986 when he was serving as President Reagan’s secretary of Defense. I found him to be brilliant, humorous, and able to think on his feet when testifying before Congress. Above all, he was an American patriot.

I served as special assistant for foreign affairs to the assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs in Secretary Weinberger’s Pentagon. My boss, Assistant Secretary Margo Carlisle, worked directly for Secretary Weinberger. Her office was one office away from Weinberger’s in the E-Ring. My office was directly across from the secretary’s in the D-Ring.

Every now and then I would attend meetings with Ms. Carlisle in Secretary Weinberger’s office. Memories of these times are etched in my mind. We were fighting the Cold War. The Soviet Union presented a real and present danger. That a devastating nuclear exchange was always less than half an hour away weighed constantly on our minds.

During the 1970s, it was thought that America was in decline relative to the Soviet Bloc. This line of reasoning originated with President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger, and continued to enjoy prominence in the Ford and Carter presidencies. Following this belief, nuclear arms control treaties were a way of engaging the Soviet Union — of moderating its inevitable advance — of delaying the coming conflict in the hope that the Soviets might soften. Such a policy was called "détente" after a French word meaning "release of tension." Of course, simply surrendering military supremacy to the Soviet Union was one sure way to release tension.

When President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 détente died, and Caspar Weinberger buried its ignoble remains.

Caspar Weinberger’s resume reads like the giants of old. He graduated from Harvard, then earned his Harvard law degree in 1941. Just before Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Army as a private in the infantry. He fought in the Pacific in WWII. He was eventually commissioned an officer and served on Gen. MacArthur’s intelligence staff.

Weinberger’s first political position was as an elected member of the San Francisco Republican Party Central Committee. He then served three terms in the State Assembly from San Francisco in the 1950s, when it was not unheard of for a Republican to represent that city. Weinberger ran for California attorney general as a reformer in 1958, but lost the primary. Ironically, he was painted as a San Francisco liberal Republican.

In 1962, the year Richard Nixon ran unsuccessfully for governor of California, Weinberger became the chairman of the California Republican Party. An actor named Ronald Reagan helped Nixon campaign that year, forging a bond between Reagan and Weinberger that would change history.

Newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967 named Weinberger chairman of the Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy, a relatively new commission at the time that we now call the "Little Hoover," and appointed him State Director of Finance in early 1968.

President Nixon recruited Weinberger away from California in 1970 to become chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Shortly thereafter, Chairman Weinberger was appointed deputy director (1970-72), then director (1972-73) of the Office of Management and Budget. And in 1973, he was appointed secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, where his reputation as a cost cutter earned him the nickname "Cap the Knife" from William Safire, then a presidential speechwriter.

In 1981, President Reagan recalled Weinberger from the private sector to be his secretary of Defense. For the next seven years, Secretary Weinberger would be President Reagan’s unflagging ally in an uphill drive to overturn a generation of defeatist strategic thinking. President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger did not merely seek to coexist with our enemies — they sought to transcend them and leave them on the ash heap of history. For this, their liberal opponents labeled President Reagan an ignorant actor or a reckless cowboy and Weinberger his war-mongering, heavy spending sidekick.

History has been more kind to President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger than their contemporary critics were. And no doubt history will smile even more upon them as the full magnitude of their visionary and courageous efforts to defeat Soviet communism becomes even better known.

In 1999, Secretary Weinberger said: "Even though the Cold War and Gulf War have been won, all the world’s threats are not gone. We’re not hunting around for enemies, but there are potential threats to our desire to live in peace and freedom. Peace alone is not enough. Peace can even mean slavery sometimes. Peace and freedom is what we have to have."

Caspar W. Weinberger was 88. He died with his wife of 63 years, Jane, at his side. He leaves a son, Caspar W. Weinberger, Jr., and a daughter, Arlin, as well as several grandchildren.

Secretary Weinberger will be missed by his family, friends, and a grateful nation that is strong and free due to his years of dedicated service.