- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Ah, yes Caspar Weinberger. Perpetual secretary of something or other, wasn't he?

Pretty much so, it seemed in the '70s and '80s. Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Richard Nixon; secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Nixon and Gerald Ford, secretary of defense (and a crucial one) under Ronald Reagan such were his titles. Nearly as busy he seemed in the Reagan days as George Shultz or Elliot Richardson probably because he was. It might repay the student of politics and national affairs to reflect why it should be the case that, for a while, when a Republican president wanted a job done competently and with intelligence, the name of Cap Weinberger got duly laid on the table and, usually got snapped up.

Cabinet members only occasionally stand out in the public consciousness Bill Bennett comes to mind and Cap Weinberger, as he tells us in this engaging and readable memoir, was congenitally shy; not exactly a man of Clintonian presence. As a public servant, he had other attributes: efficiency, clearness of vision and understanding and also what seems an instinctive grasp of political principle. Hard to believe that one who appropriated conservatism as a child and practiced it during the New Deal at Harvard, yet should have been, in the 60s, suspected by some fellow Republicans of harboring dangerous liberal tendencies. But, then, to many Southern Californians at the time Mr. Weinberger was a San Franciscan almost everyone else was a liberal.

It was a cardinal article of Mr. Weinberger's Republican faith one he shared with Mr. Reagan that Republicans should abstain from beating up on each other, saving the fisticuffs for encounters with high-taxing, big-government-promoting Democrats. "Far too many Republicans," he writes, "would rather pass a resolution, even if ridiculous or unhelpful in persuading voters, than win an election." In 1964, as chairman of the California Republican Party, Mr. Weinberger favored the experienced Nelson Rockefeller over the insurgent, if easily more conservative, Barry Goldwater. Actually, the genial Mr. Weinberger professes a cordial liking for many of those who opposed him over the years.

Though he did well financially as a result of public service and the esteem it brought him (he remains the globe-trotting chairman of Forbes, Inc.) Cap Weinberger set out not to be served but to serve, after the manner of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt. After military service in the South Pacific, he practiced a bit of law. He served three terms in the California assembly, ran for attorney general and lost, then became in due course Gov. Reagan's finance director.

Nixon tapped him in 1968 for OMB, first as deputy, then as director. He became known, thanks to William Safire (doing a riff on Harold Macmillan's sometime nickname) as Cap the Knife. He did the best he could, coming later to understand that, "The only way to achieve real budget reform was to limit the revenue government received" a supply-side insight that would in the Reagan years approach orthodoxy.

It was as defense secretary at a critical moment the Soviet Union, loudly as it blustered, was coming apart that Mr. Weinberger earned the loudest plaudits and likely found the deepest fulfillment of his career. Ronald Reagan wanted the military rebuilt after the negligence of the Carter years. Very well. Cap Weinberger, his knife in the sheath, would rebuild it, drawing on the hard-nosed expertise of such as ex-Marine Jim Webb, secretary of the Navy. Challenged, unable to go forward, Soviet communism disintegrated.

As fate would have it, Mr. Weinberger completed his manuscript in early 2001, when it seemed essential to make broad declarations such as, "Gone is our military strength that won the Cold War." Resonant, and very much on the table, are Mr. Weinberger's military recommendations e.g., deployment of strategic defense and the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The aftermath of service with President Reagan was no joyride: Five years of investigation by the Inspector Javert-like special counsel on Irangate, Lawrence Walsh, was climaxed by an indictment in 1992. On evidence stretched so thinly that light could pass through it, Mr. Weinberger faced charges of perjury and concealment of evidence. The outgoing President George H. W. Bush ended his ordeal with a pardon (which implied no admission of guilt), but not before Mr. Weinberger had obligated himself for $2.3 million in legal fees.

So a happy ending to a public service career of depth and high achievement. A vital and likeable Cap, less shy perhaps than he thinks, peeks through the pages. But, more to the point, a strongly patriotic Mr. Weinberger, man of the old school and lover of freedom.

The narrative of public men can sometimes become gawky, and at times, it does so here. Nevertheless, this is a book of charm and dignity. As many times as Cap the Knife may have served his country and state over the past half-century, you kind of hope he might be up for another stint: one, just one.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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