No good deed...the hounding of Cap Weinberger

Posted: Apr 03, 2006 12:01 AM

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.

The silliest charge against him was that he had concealed his notes on the affair from Prosecutor Walsh's investigators. Actually, on leaving office he'd deposited all of his papers as secretary of defense at the Library of Congress. He'd even authorized Walsh's gumshoes to look at any and all of his notes.

So naturally they accused him of hiding his papers, which, as he would later note, "were gathering dust in the world's most public depository and to which they had been given access by my specific written authorization."

None of this stopped Lawrence Walsh from getting Caspar Weinberger indicted; the prosecutor would have liked to use him to get President Reagan. If only the former secretary of defense would plead guilty to a misdemeanor and testify against his boss, he was assured, he'd get only a light sentence. Think of the millions in legal fees he could save!

Walsh miscalculated. It turns out he was dealing with an honorable man. No matter what it cost Cap Weinberger, he would not go against his conscience. When one charge was dismissed, Walsh produced another in the last days of the three-cornered Bush-Clinton-Perot presidential race of 1992. Just in time for Election Day.

That charge, too, would be dismissed later, but at the time the Clinton camp was ecstatic, perhaps not realizing what raw justice history can mete out: The Clinton administration would in turn be hounded by its own Inspector Javert in the personage of Ken Starr.

Among the many mysteries of l'affaire Weinberger is why Walsh didn't try to indict Reagan's secretary of state, too, since the "evidence" against George Shultz, who also adamantly opposed the Iran-Contra deal, was just as skimpy.

The only credible explanation I can think of is that Walsh just didn't like Weinberger, and that's understandable. The Hon. Caspar Willard Weinberger was one of those prim and prissy types - a buttoned-down numbers guy, sharp debater and oh-so-formal type - who just plain irritate the rest of us slobs. (Did he ever untie that tie?)

Just before leaving office, on Christmas Eve of 1992, the first President Bush pardoned Weinberger in an overdue act of justice, giving him and his family a merry Christmas indeed.

Even then, Weinberger had debated whether to accept the pardon, but in the end he decided to spare himself and Mrs. Weinberger a long trial, and who can blame him? Probably somebody who's never been dragged into a courtroom on hoked-up charges. His good deeds surely had been punished sufficiently by then without putting him through another grinder.

His long ordeal over, Weinberger would go on to spend a productive old age writing and editing; he'd always described himself as "a frustrated newspaperman." (As an undergraduate, he'd been president of the Harvard Crimson.) He spent his last years just as he'd always wanted to - traveling and writing.

But even in death, the unproven accusation would stick. It was mentioned in the lead of his obituary last week: "WASHINGTON (AP) - Caspar W. Weinberger ... indicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, died Tuesday." Which brings to mind an old story he liked to tell:

A man sees an old friend on the street and says, "I haven't seen you in a long time. You were mixed up in that watch theft, weren't you?" The friend replies, "Yes, I was the man who had his watch stolen."