Paul Greenberg

If no good deed goes unpunished, imagine the retribution that awaits a lifetime of honest, uncompromising, devoted public service.

You don't have to imagine: Just review the life of Caspar W. Weinberger, former secretary of defense and designated target in the Iran-Contra kerfuffle. He died peacefully last week at 88 - after having saved the taxpayers of his native California and the nation millions of dollars over the course of his public career, a feat that earned him the sobriquet Cap the Knife, yet spending whatever it took to revitalize this country's armed forces after the Carter administration and debacle.

And, oh yes, and he may have done more than any American of his time except Ronald Reagan to win the Cold War, and thus end the nuclear arms race.

For all this, naturally, he had to be punished.

The instrument Fate used for the job was an all too independent prosecutor named Lawrence E. Walsh, who got a grand jury to indict Mr. Weinberger - five years after he'd left office - on two counts of perjury, two counts of making false statements, and one count of obstructing the work of Congress.

What was the accused supposed to have done? As secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, he was said to have countenanced a wide-ranging conspiracy to send arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, and then lied to cover up what came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

Never mind that, when the deal was proposed, he'd fired off a memo blasting the whole idea:

"Under no circumstances should we now ease our restrictions on arms sales to Iran. Such a policy reversal would be seen as inexplicably inconsistent by those nations whom we have urged to refrain from such sales, and would likely lead to increased arms sales by them and a possible alteration of the strategic balance in favor of Iran while (the Ayatollah) Khomeini is still the controlling influence."

If only Ronald Reagan had followed Cap Weinberger's counsel, he might have avoided the one big blot on his remarkably successful eight years in the White House. Instead, his secretary of defense was deliberately left out of the loop. (When Mr. Weinberger's curiosity was aroused by some oddly phrased cable traffic, he was assured by the intelligence agencies involved that it was all a mistake. It seems they'd been instructed to tell him nothing about the Iran-Contra deal.)

Later, when the idea of an arms-for-hostages swap with Iran came up in a Cabinet meeting, Cap Weinberger opposed it just as vehemently.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.