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A Loyal Soldier's Mixed Legacy

November 06, 1987

Caspar W. Weinberger has served his state and nation with unbounded energy over the past 35 years, beginning with his election to the California Legislature in 1952. It is not likely that Ronald Reagan has had a more loyal and devoted worker. And in this era when officials often seem to have their eye on how public service can enhance their careers, there never was the slightest doubt about Weinberger's motives.

In seven years as secretary of defense, Cap Weinberger was a zealot in promoting a $2-trillion buildup of American defenses. Weinberger relentlessly argued that the nation had fallen dangerously behind the Soviets and cuts in his inflated defense budget proposals would lead the nation to doomsday's door.

Former budget director David Stockman wrote in his book of Weinberger's tenacious filibustering in budget meetings, once showing the President a giant cartoon to demonstrate that any cuts would turn the American military into a helpless pygmy figure without even a rifle. "Did he think the White House was on Sesame Street?" Stockman asked incredulously. But Weinberger, of course, won his point. When someone noted that Weinberger had used four times his alloted time before the President, Weinberger quipped, "Just wanted to be thorough, sir." Indeed.

The United States did need to modernize its forces. But the problem was that the government, led by a President who couldn't say no, threw billions at Weinberger's unlimited wish list without being certain of what it was buying, except usually more of everything. As a result, the nation will wind up with costly and duplicative weapons systems, some of dubious value. There was no indication that the Defense Department ever got control of waste. And each service was allowed to pursue its own plans and weapons for war with the result that there was no coherent global strategy.

Still, Weinberger has had a keen instinct for the appropriate use of U.S. force around the world and often clashed with his former business world colleague, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, on the flexing of U.S. muscles. Had Weinberger's fears been heeded, the nation might have been spared its debacle in Lebanon.

If Weinberger is brilliant and intense, he also is genuine and unaffected, witty and engaging. Early in the Reagan years, he could be seen alone pushing a shopping cart around the Safeway store in Georgetown. He helps out with his wife's publishing business in their summer home in Maine and once led a petition drive to lower speed limits in the neighborhood there.

Weinberger's policies have been controversial. His legacy is mixed. But there never has been any doubt about his dedication to public service in America.

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