Charges hit Weinberger over policy he opposed

June 17, 1992|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In almost seven years as defense secretary, Caspar W. Weinberger was an advocate with a single client, Ronald Reagan, for whom he accelerated and presided over the longest-running military buildup in U.S. history.

He was courtly, courteous, self-effacing -- and unyielding and stubborn as could be, to the extreme annoyance of many in Congress who thought he was spending the country blind. From 1981 to 1985 they barely laid a glove on him, and then defense budgets finally began to go down.

In all those years, this reporter saw Mr. Weinberger angry just once. That was when the commission headed by former Sen. John G. Tower, after its Iran-contra investigation, claimed the defense chief and the then-secretary of state, George P. Shultz, had let President Reagan down, sitting passively and neither fully supporting him nor quitting.

He had called the arms sales deal "absurd" and, in an interview in March 1987, he told The Sun he had opposed what he knew about it "repeatedly and to the point of giving offense" in the Reagan administration. He had been shut out of White House meetings by the national security officials there, and there was no evidence to back the Tower board's claims.

It is an irony therefore that Mr. Weinberger becomes the highest-ranking member of the Reagan administration indicted in the Iran-contra affair, for allegedly concealing information and lying to Congress about what he knew.

However that plays out in court, the record seems clear that selling arms to Iran to get money for contras in Nicaragua was, in Mr. Weinberger's perspective, about the only thing the administration did wrong.

In his 1990 memoirs, "Fighting for Peace," the former Pentagon chief called the deal the "one serious mistake during the seven years I served as secretary of defense."

A misled President Reagan followed advice that "led him away from his sure instincts," the ex-Cabinet officer wrote.

Mr. Weinberger, who will be 75 in August, was in public service for nearly all the 45 years from the time he was a young officer on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff in World War II until he left the Pentagon in 1987.

But he was not always a big spender, worrying about fending off the Communist menace.

He came to Washington 22 years ago to direct the Federal Trade Commission for President Richard M. Nixon. He had been a California state legislator and served as finance director for Gov. Ronald Reagan for two years in the 1960s.

Here, he soon became director of the Office of Management and Budget and forever acquired the nickname "Cap the Knife," first because he was tight with a federal buck and later, in some derision, because he was anything but. In time he became Mr. Nixon's health, education and welfare secretary and then, in 1975, he went home to California to become the huge Bechtel Corp.'s general counsel.

When President Reagan tapped him for the Pentagon in 1981, the wrong analysis quickly was that "Cap the Knife" was back in town.

The promised Reagan defense buildup would be tightly supervised. Nothing could have been further from the facts as they unrolled.

There is another irony in yesterday's development. When Mr. Reagan came under fire from some anonymous Republican legislators in early 1987 in the Iran-contra matter, Mr. Weinberger lashed out at "these 'summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.' "

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