The Magazine

The Life and Times of Cap the Knife

Caspar Weinberger remembers his days in the ring.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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In the Arena
A Memoir of the 20th Century
by Caspar W. Weinberger, with Gretchen Roberts
Regnery, 412 pp., $34.95

WHEN I OPENED Caspar Weinberger's memoir, an irresistible impulse propelled me to the chapter describing his outrageous persecution in 1992 by Lawrence Walsh, the out-of-control Iran-Contra independent counsel. Sadly, despite a life filled with selfless and invaluable public service, the mention of his name recalls his humiliation: indictment, re-indictment, and eventual pardon for having sent his notes as secretary of defense to the Library of Congress.

"In the Arena: A Memoir of the 20th Century" treats this episode with a candor and anger uncharacteristic of the calm and secretive Cap Weinberger. He correctly describes himself as a target in Walsh's jihad against Ronald Reagan. Walsh "was constructing a case against me," Weinberger writes, "to try to force me to implicate the president." When he refused, he was indicted. The result was Kafkaesque: multiple appearances in the dock, six-figure legal fees, a damaged legacy. Investigated for the arms-for-hostages transactions that he had opposed as Reagan's secretary of defense, he was indicted a second time on the eve of the Bush-Clinton election--on virtually the same charge that had been previously dismissed by a federal judge. "I have no doubt that this was another desperate attempt by the independent counsel," he writes, "to bring down as high an official as he could and support the Democratic candidate [Bill Clinton] at the same time--an effort undoubtedly tinged with revenge for my refusal to help him in this goal."

Alas, this pugnacious style is restricted to one chapter. "In the Arena" refers to Theodore Roosevelt's injunction to be "actually in the arena" rather than watching up in the stands, which Richard Nixon and other Republicans interpreted as a slap at journalists. Although Weinberger was president of the Harvard Crimson at the beginning of his career and publisher of Forbes near the end, he never seemed fond of reporters. I never knew him to tell us anything we were not supposed to know, and his memoir exudes the same studied reticence.

Until his ugly collision with Walsh's prosecutorial abuse, Weinberger's life was one of service to his country unmarred by serious setbacks. Contrary to Richard Nixon's tape-recorded musing that Weinberger originally was Jewish, he was taken into his mother's Episcopalian religion from the cradle (his father's family having abandoned Judaism in Bohemia "two or three generations back").

The shy son of a middle-class San Francisco lawyer, he won a scholarship to Harvard where he found himself the "lone conservative" in his American government major "taught with a liberal bias." He received his Harvard law degree in 1941 and immediately enlisted in the Army, serving as an infantry officer in New Guinea and later, reluctantly, on General Douglas MacArthur's staff.

Returning to California, Weinberger leaped into Republican politics and served three terms in the state assembly before losing his only bid for statewide office in the 1958 Republican primary for attorney general (the party's old guard disapproved of his support for civil rights). He was Governor Reagan's enthusiastic finance director before being summoned to Washington by President Nixon, first as Federal Trade Commission chairman, then as deputy director and later director in the Office of Management and Budget, and finally as secretary of health, education, and welfare.

He had a strained relationship with Nixon. They were Californians of the same generation, but one was a consummate manipulator and the other an earnest idealist. "I always felt somewhat of an outsider in the Nixon administration," Weinberger writes, explaining that he was denied access to the president and could not even get White House policy aide John Ehrlichman to return his phone calls.

Weinberger does not mention a famous breakfast with reporters when--to the consternation of the White House--he declared his opposition to deficit spending in good times or in bad. When speechwriter William Safire dubbed him "Cap the Knife," it was not a compliment. "Contrary to his rhetoric," Weinberger writes, "the president was reluctant to make the deep cuts in popular programs that I thought were necessary."

WEINBERGER NEVER thought he would serve a second hitch in Washington, but President Reagan called him back to preside over defenses that had been dangerously depleted under Jimmy Carter. It was a far happier tour than his Nixon experience. Weinberger's legacy was not only a rebuilt military but his famous National Press Club speech of November 28, 1984 on the "Uses of Military Power" in which he laid down six conditions--most notably, popular support--for sending American troops into combat.