Politics & Policy

Man With a Spine of Steel

Remembering Cap Weinberger.

I remember the first time I met Cap. It was 1992 and I was researching a book on the Reagan Cold War strategy– and I was anxious. Cap was publisher and chairman of Forbes at the time. Previously, he had served in Cabinet positions under three U.S. presidents, most recently as secretary of Defense for seven years under Reagan. He was known as “Cap the Knife” under Nixon, and was the man who built up the Reagan Military Machine. Just a little intimidating, don’t you think? I was ushered into his office by Kay Leisz, his long-time aide. “Call me Cap,” he said.

The man I met and grew to know over the next 14 years was simply one of the kindest men I have ever known. Whether you were the prime minister of Japan or the chauffeur behind the wheel of his car, Cap Weinberger would treat you with respect and grace. Sometimes a graduate student conducting research on the Reagan years would contact me with some questions. If he were a serious scholar, I would call Cap and ask if he would be willing to with the student. “Of course,” he would always say.

That is not to say that Cap Weinberger was soft. When it came to first principles and speaking the truth, Cap was always straight-forward and direct. The people he admired the most in politics, he told me, were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Winston Churchill. He liked that they were uncompromising when it came to taking on the enemies of liberty. Sometimes people would confuse Weinberger’s gentleness with softness. When Weinberger was appointed secretary of Defense by Reagan in 1981, the Soviet health minister sent an optimistic note to the Kremlin. He explained that he had worked with Weinberger when Weinberger was secretary of Health Education and Welfare, and he was a kind and reasonable man. Weinberger, the Soviet official insisted, would be a voice for détente. The Soviets soon learned that Weinberger had a spine of steel, and just because he wanted to cut the budget of HEW in the 1970s, that didn’t mean he wanted to cut the Pentagon budget in the 1980s. Indeed, Cap went on to oversee the greatest peacetime military build-up in history. The KGB considered him “unflinching,” according to their files. Read through the Soviet and East German archives and notice how the military build-up Weinberger orchestrated threw them into an absolute panic. Cap Weinberger was a major architect in winning the Cold War.

One of his most overlooked qualities was his dry sense of humor. We wrote two books together, and I got to experience his wit up close. I remember the time I told him about research from the East German Stasi archives. The files revealed how the Soviets had been funding the West European peace movement. “The Soviets wanted peace,” he said and then paused for affect. “A piece of France, a piece of Germany, a piece of Great Britain…” Once I asked him whether he would serve President Bill Clinton if ever called to do so. “If I thought I could help the country, yes, I would,” he said. “But I wouldn’t hire any interns.” When someone approached me about making a feature film on the Reagan Cold War triumph, I told Cap about it. “Let’s talk about casting,” he said with a wry smile. “I was thinking Laurence Olivier or Carey Grant for Sec Def. Too bad they’re not around.”

On another occasion he phoned me in Florida while I was down with a chest cold. After complaining about how bad I felt, Cap, then 80, said, “Yes I just had that, too.” “Really, how did you get rid of it?” I asked him, expecting to hear something about bedrest. “I caught a plane to Saudi Arabia to give a speech for Forbes. The desert heat kills off the virus every time.”

He maintained his sense of humor and good spirits even as life became more difficult with age. His lovely wife, Jane, grew increasingly ill, and this caused him considerable sadness. Two years ago he began dialysis treatments three times a week. The procedure was quite discomforting, but he never complained. When I asked him if he was feeling okay, he would chuckle, say “no,” and then move on to another subject. Cap considered so many other things more important than himself.

A couple of weeks ago he fell and injured his ribs. Apparently that brought on pneumonia, which complicated the dialysis. When he entered the hospital in Bangor, Maine, his wife Jane insisted on sleeping by his side. Before he passed on, he got to see his children and some of his grandchildren. Cap Weinberger was proud of the important things in his life–his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and his country. Plans are for Cap to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Whenever I talked to him about his years in the Pentagon, he would never dwell on the policy meetings or battles with Congress. But he truly loved talking about the men and women who served in the armed forces. He would tell me about his visits with the soldiers, about going down deep in the bowels of a ship just to say hello to the “boys in the engine room.” His favorite ceremonies as secretary of Defense did not involve foreign dignitaries, but giving commendations and medals to the soldiers. Over the past two years he worked on and completed (with Wynton Hall) a book called Home of the Brave about the heroes of the war on terrorism. It will be released this May. Weinberger was a soldier himself during the Second World War and served under MacArthur in the Pacific. He was a member of “The Greatest Generation,” but he would speak movingly about the heroic acts of our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I asked him to compare today’s heroism with that of his generation, he made an interesting point. “Members of ‘the greatest generation’ were drafted,” he told me in a broken voice. “These soldiers all volunteered.”

Cap Weinberger, R.I.P

Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of the New York Times-bestseller Do As I Say (Not As I Do). His most recent book written with Cap Weinberger is Chain of Command.

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