Caspar Weinberger Remembered

My father passed away two years ago this past week in Bangor, Maine. It was not unexpected as these things go; he was, after all, 88 years old, approaching his 89th birthday and not in good health. He probably left the Earth at the right time as he would have absolutely abhorred the fact that another Clinton was running for President. He told me he didn’t give a hoot who Bill Clinton was sleeping with, he was just disgusted by his foreign policy; even to the point of wondering if the man actually had any. He knew, as most in the military knew, that Bill Clinton hated the armed forces and had really very little respect for their well being or treatment. Watching the most recent disingenuousness of Mrs. Clinton and the hideous people she surrounds herself with would no doubt have revolted him as well. For these are people who have proved they have no morals, no high ground for America, and no cause other than their own greed and self-serving attitudes.

But this is a remembrance of Caspar, not of the coarseness of today’s campaigns. He packed an extraordinary amount of living into his time, devoting most of his adult life to public service in city, county and state government in California and then onward to many trusted positions in Washington, D.C. with our federal government.

He was an international statesman of note. He was opinionated, unflappable and really unmovable once he had made up his mind on an issue, but he was also a perfect gentleman of the old school of manners and polite discourse. He loved Winston Churchill’s demeanor and emulated an attitude of never surrendering, never giving in, of never abandoning what was in his view good and right for America.

Caspar had a great intellect, studying at Harvard College in the 1930’s while earning Magna Cum Laude status and entry into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. His classmates included David Rockefeller, Arthur Schlesinger and Teddy White (author of the famous “Making of the President” books). He became the President of the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s world famous college daily, and went on to make Law Review at Harvard Law School. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army and suffered through basic training as only an Ivy Leaguer under the tutelage of an unimpressed series of grunts can experience: he dug a lot of fox holes and pulled a lot of latrine duty.

But he suffered those indignities gladly so as to qualify for duty in the Pacific theater becoming first a Lieutenant and then a Captain assigned to duty in the Philippines and then to Macarthur’s intelligence staff.

He married an Army nurse from Maine he had met on transport from San Francisco to Australia. It was a marriage that lasted for 63 years–all the rest of his life–and my mother still survives him, now in her 89th year. He was indeed part and parcel a character of the Greatest Generation as he was so generously and yet so deservingly remembered in Tom Brokaw’s book by that name.

Cap, as he was known to the world, became a law clerk and then passed the state bar to become a lawyer himself in San Francisco, where he had grown up decades earlier. He wanted to practice in New York because he knew it was the center of power and culture in post-war America; however his father had just died at quite a young age of a heart attack and he felt it prudent to remain near his mother and brother who needed his help and were staunchly embedded in Northern California.

Yet, wherever he would be, the truth is that you can’t keep a good man down. He quickly made San Francisco his home again, helping to bring into the world both my sister, Arlin, in 1943, and myself in 1947. My mother encouraged him to seek elective office when he complained that the law was, after all, rather boring. He ran and won a seat for the California Assembly from the 21st District in San Francisco. Just the other day, I found the old license plates: “A 21” which he had preserved with so much other memorabilia in the nooks and crannies of his waterfront home in Mount Desert, Maine. I’ll take them out of storage now and display them to remind me of the time he was in Sacramento when a man named Jess Unruh was a fellow representative preparing to be the House Speaker and a fellow named Earl Warren was Governor, and as a five year old child I was lucky enough to be an honorary page

My father served three terms, a total of six years, in the Assembly. He was voted by the Associated Press as “the Most Outstanding Legislator” in California. Those days in the 1950’s were a much calmer period in American history although political life had its partisanship and corruption issues just as today. He wrote the legislation that formed the California Water Resources Board — today a cabinet position. He fought the legalizing of laetrile as a cancer medicine as it had been proven to be a dubious cure at best and was providing a lot of quacks with the ability to scam the poor and needy. We paid a price for that when our home across from the Presidio wall was vandalized: one afternoon in the midst of the Sacramento debates on the issue, someone threw a brick through our front window, terrifying my mother and me who were the only one’s at home. Fortunately we were not hurt.

But the incident served to remind me that politics has a price and that public life means just what Abe Lincoln said about not being able to please all the people all the time.

Caspar Weinberger went on to become California Governor Ronald Reagan’s Director of Finance in Sacramento in 1967 and eventually was called to Washington by President Nixon to become Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. From there he went on to serve as the Director of OMB and then, under President Ford, as Secretary of HEW, the fore-runner of today’s HHS.

He retuned to private practice in 1975 becoming a Director and the General Counsel of Bechtel Corporation in San Francisco. This powerful, family held engineering company had as its slogan “Bechtel Builds” and indeed they did: everything from nuclear power plants to the infrastructure of much of modern Saudi Arabia.

Although he made real money there for the first time in his life, and experienced corporate life at the top, my father was much more comfortable being a governmental servant of the people. When Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the Presidency, my father fully supported him. Reagan knew first hand of his good works and when he won he wasted little time in naming Cap to the most important position, in Reagan’s view, in his new
Administration: Secretary of Defense. Many thought Cap would have made the perfect Secretary of State and wondered at Reagan’s selection. But Ronald Reagan was a great judge of character and he knew he needed his top hand at Defense where the battle for America would be waged and the plan to destroy the corrupt Soviet Union without firing a shot was being scripted.

My father, once known so well for strict budget cutting at OMB that he became “Cap the Knife” confounded the pundits when he designed, proposed and stood behind huge military budgets that outraged the liberals in Congress and indeed even folks like David Stockman right within Reagan’s Administration.

But Cap stuck to his guns, both figuratively and literally, and the budgets Reagan wanted were achieved. America’s military might proved too great for the Soviets who were absolutely outspent and driven into defeat in the “arms race.” But, unlike the Soviets, we were not spending to build up an offensive army capable of world domination. We wanted peace, but these wise men: Reagan and Weinberger, and certainly many others from the Reagan era, knew that to achieve that peace, the paradox was that we could not be weak but had to be the strongest of the strong.

We all know the ending to that story. It ended very well for America. Now those two heroes are gone to a greater glory and it is to us the living that we witness new hostile situations that threaten America. We can learn a lot from the Greatest Generation: specifically that war is indeed hell but what is worse is the failure to build up the country’s military strength to such a degree that we have the distinct possibility of never having to use our arms to keep the peace, and yet when we do have to resort to armed conflict we never for one moment shrink from that responsibility.

The idea of bringing the troops home before the mission is complete would have been unthinkable to my father. Yet, the two Democratic candidates for President both play to the crowds with statements of weakness and conciliation in terms of our military and our standing in the world. While he would have issues, as many of us do, with John McCain, he would know and express the fact clearly and often that he is by far the fittest of the now just three viable candidates to hold our highest office.  

“Peace through Strength” is my father’s legacy, etched on his tomb stone in Arlington National Cemetery, and it is now, as then, at the very core of what can keep our country free and strong.

Two years after Caspar Weinberger’s death, it seems to me, it is most fitting to remember not only my dear father but a very great American and his generation as well.


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