Op-Eds by Jim

Caspar Willard Weinberger

March 31, 2006
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

From the window of my office I can see the flag pole on the main hilltop of historic Fort Myer, where high-ranking officers, including the Army’s Chief of Staff, have resided for more than a century. The flag is at half-mast, as it always is when great tragedies occur or when noteworthy Americans have died.

I have written from this office for many years, and the half-masted flag at Fort Myers has become a frequent sight. But this afternoon as I watch the flag flutter in a gentle wind, I am overcome with a sense of nostalgia and regret that surprises me.

“Cap” Wienberger would have liked that, I find myself thinking. But it also would have embarrassed him just a bit. If he had lived to see this tribute, Cap would surely have made some self-deprecating joke — and then deflected the whole subject onto another deserving individual. Something like, “Well, if you outlive enough of your adversaries the remainder will forget the arguments and lower a flag for you.”

For nearly four years during the Reagan administration I had the privilege of working for, and with, Caspar Willard Weinberger, first as an assistant secretary of defense and then as secretary of the Navy. As part of his inner staff that met daily with him, I once calculated that I had walked more than a thousand miles of Pentagon office corridors between my office and his. And in the years after he left the Pentagon, I counted myself among the lucky former subordinates who were able to grab him for lunch every now and then, or correspond on this issue or that, or even, as it turned out, to give him advice on his ever-aspiring writing career.

In this town of inflated egos and ruthless ambition, I have never met a more gracious man. And in a lifetime that, beginning with my father’s military service, spans every secretary of defense, I can think of no one who has ever held that office with more competence, intellect and understanding of our country’s place in the world.

Memories surround me: of Cap holding court among his inner staff day after day, receiving the morning briefings from his key subordinates, questioning their reports, giving guidance across a broad spectrum of issues with humor and incisive intellect. This was a man — rare in government circles — who was not afraid of strong personalities, who encouraged debate, who brought out the creative energies of people with a wide array of backgrounds and policy interests. Unlike so many government leaders who do not want to hear bad news, or who wish only to direct their subordinates from the top, Cap wanted to know, and the country was better off for it.

When Cap Weinberger took office as secretary of defense in 1981 our military was in a truly worrisome state. Its people were burnt out. Our ships, aircraft and weapons systems were depleted, on the verge of obsolescence. Our nation was demoralized by the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the humiliation of the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, and worried sick about the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. Nearly seven brutally demanding years later, he left behind a modernized, properly deployed military force filled with quality people. He had implemented a strategy that soon thereafter brought an end to the Soviet Union’s expansionist regime. And he had put into place a doctrine regarding the use of force that, perhaps unfairly, became more associated in the public’s eye with the views of his disciple Colin Powell than of his own.

It is painful for those who knew and respected Cap Weinberger to see his name, even in his obituaries, associated with the Iran-Contra affair, an endeavor that he himself had advised against. But his loyalties were astounding, even legendary among the Reagan inner circle. In the end they defined even his darker moments.

But Cap accepted that, just as he accepted the inevitability that others might shine brighter in the limelight that he himself made possible. One of his favorite quotes in those later years, when he would find the time to meet for lunch, was one he attributed to Ronald Reagan: “You can get a lot done in this town if you don’t care who takes credit for it.”