On Cap Weinberger and Civility

Last week, the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College ran another of its “V&V Q&As,” this one with Peter Schweizer, whom I interviewed on his new book, Makers and Takers. As noted in the interview, Schweizer dedicated the book to his late colleague Cap Weinberger, a superb secretary of defense—the man who presided over the Reagan defense build-up of the 1980s—and one of the instrumental figures in the squeeze and surrender of the Soviet Union. In that interview, Schweizer talked about what Weinberger meant to him and to the country, and emphasized that Weinberger was a true gentleman—a kind, civil man who was often a victim of the vituperation by the left that Schweizer documents in his book.

Schweizer’s observation jogged my memory. Having lived through the period, I remember how Weinberger was constantly under fire in a vicious way, but somehow always responded with aplomb. I could cite examples from the run-of-the-mill extremists who today populate the web, or who, in Weinberger’s time, made their home at angry publications like The Nation. Yet, for Weinberger, one need go no further than his testimonies before the U.S. Senate—a staid body where the members refer to one another as “gentleman” and “gentle-lady.”

Here is one of the more vivid examples, compliments of Senator Don Riegle (D-MI) during a February 3, 1983 hearing on the defense budget:

Senator Riegle: Mr. Weinberger, I have served in the Congress now for 17 years under five presidents, as both a Republican and a Democrat, and for the first time, I think we have a secretary of defense whose basic judgment is dangerous to our country. You give every appearance of being an inflexible ideologue who has lost any sense of rational proportion when it comes to assessing the defense needs of our country. By your really fanatical insistence on defense increases that are larger than needed, larger than we can afford, I believe that you are damaging our national security.

Secretary Weinberger: Well, Senator, I have to –

Senator Riegle:
Now, I beg your pardon, sir! I did not interrupt you –

Secretary Weinberger:
Yes, that is right, but you are –

Senator Riegle: I did not interrupt you! And when I finish – I have the floor! –

Secretary Weinberger:
Yes, but you are making an attack on me personally, and I have to say –

Senator Riegle:
I have the floor! I do not feel that I am, sir, and I have the floor! –

Secretary Weinberger: Well, I would let anybody judge that –

Senator Riegle: Mr. Chairman, I would ask that the secretary –

Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM): Would you both refrain for a moment? All right, senator, would you start over now?

Senator Riegle: I believe that these policies and this approach is damaging our national security and I want to repeat it for emphasis: I think you are making America weaker, not stronger, and I think this perverse reality is actually serving the interests of the Soviet Union, which is the most dangerous irony of all.

Sadly, this was not unusual treatment for Weinberger, and it is rather tame compared to other instances of demonization of the man in the 1980s. Though Riegle may or may not have said it here, I’m not exaggerating when I say that much (if not most) of the American left considered Weinberger a greater danger than the Soviet Union, and a man of more fanatical ideas. The left was more troubled by Weinberger’s anti-communism than Soviet communism.

Aside from Riegle in the Senate, liberals in the press fanned the flames around Weinberger every chance they could, demanding that the president fire him. To Ronald Reagan’s credit, he stood by his secretary of defense. In fact, two years after the Riegle exchange, President Reagan was asked by an enthusiastic reporter if he was about to fire Weinberger. Reagan calmly replied by asking the reporter if he wanted a one-word or two-word answer. When the reporter said he preferred the more lengthy two-word option, Reagan replied tersely, “Hell, no.”

Weinberger always smiled, offered his hand, and moved on, often leaving his detractors livid. They hated him—how could he simply grin and continue his business? How dare he!

This is another reminder of the enduring incivility of political debate in America, which seems even worse today, as evident in any visit to one’s email box or the Internet. It is also an apt example of how to respond with grace. As for young people who recoil at the prospect of public service: fear not, persevere. Follow Cap Weinberger’s example of responding to incivility with civility.