Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006
By Richard M. Langworth
Cap Weinberger was our first friend in high places. One can read about his long career everywhere; we here should remember moreover what he thought of Winston Churchill, and what he meant to Churchillians.
In 1982, when we were reviving the old Churchill Society, our past president, bookseller Dalton Newfield, offered to send our announcement to his customers. “I have some notable people,” he confided.
He did indeed. A few weeks later I was holding a personal cheque for $ 15 (as it then was!) from the Secretary of Defense. I promptly sent it back and we made Caspar Weinberger an honorary member. Later he became a Churchill Centre Trustee, and was instrumental in opening several doors to distinguished people who also became friends and supporters.
In 1985 he addressed our Boston conference at the Parker House. President Reagan and George Schultz were in Geneva with the Russians, and he was the senior cabinet officer in the country. The Secret Service closed a Boston street to drive in from Logan, marching him in under heavy guard, nervous about revolving doors and elevators. While he was with us, a direct line to the White House was kept open behind the podium.
Since he had to return immediately to Washington he spoke before dinner, regretting that he could not stay for his favorite lobster bisque. He said this pre-dinner speech reminded him of the Chinese dinners in San Francisco, which he had attended as a California assemblyman in the 1950s.
His speech, “Churchill: An Uncomfortable Hero,” recalls his lifelong admiration for the statesman whose voice he first heard in 1941 as an infantry recruit, crackling over the ether on primitive radios in distant barracks, hurling defiance at the enemy and courage to the world: “I was certainly moved more completely I guess than I had been by any speech since.”
He explained why Churchill was an uncomfortable hero: “How can you emulate anyone who has seen action on three continents and written five books by the time he was 26? When he entered the Cabinet he was 33. When he resigned as Prime Minister he was 80. [One must] feel extraordinarily humble when it comes to Winston Churchill.”
When next I saw him, at a House of Commons dinner in 1989, he was “Sir Caspar” in Britain, having received from The Queen the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire for his help in the Falklands war. I asked if he was glad his Secret Service guards were gone. He said it was the best thing about leaving high office.
Caspar Weinberger was in Washington for nearly thirty years. Having previously served in California state government, he said the work in DC was not that different—you just had to add about nine zeros to everything. He was the longest-serving Secretary of Defense. He had as much to do with the demise of the Soviet scourge as anyone short of President Reagan.
In 1999 we held a lobster dinner at the East Wind Inn in Tenants Harbor, Maine, following the launch of USS Winston S. Churchill at the Bath shipyard. Cap and Jane and Cap Jr. were part of a guest list that included Lady Soames, Winston and Luce Churchill, and almost our entire Board of Governors. Now into his eighties, he was animated as ever, and full of anecdotes about the man he and we had come to respect above all others. He had a fine Churchill library and knew the saga well enough to converse easily with advanced scholars.
Even though he was 88, I was shocked to hear he was gone. He had remained active as chairman of Forbes, Inc., keeping a schedule that would floor men twenty years younger. “I can’t get him to slow down at all,” said his longtime aide Kay Liesz on the telephone one day. I reminded her of what Alistair Cooke once told me, that he would never completely retire, “because I have observed that those who do often immediately keel over.” Yes, said Kay, “that’s Mr. Weinberger.” Alistair Cooke lived to 95. Both of them demonstrate that age is measured not in years, but in the state of one’s mental apparatus.
A friend in England wrote: “The left wing, of course, linked him with Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Islands, which is why they hated him—but that was why I thought he was a great guy.” Apropos that subject, one last little story.
At our Washington conference in 1993, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, attended our dinner on the night after the then-Mrs. Thatcher had addressed us at the British Embassy. “What did she say?” asked Mrs. Kirkpatrick. She said (I replied): “A lot of people in the American government were against us in the Falklands, but Cap Weinberger was not one of those people.”
Ambassador Kirkpatrick paused for a moment and said, “I was one of those people, you know.”
In far too deep to back out, I replied, “Well, you were wrong, weren’t you?”
She thought a little and then said, “You know, on balance, I think I probably was!”
Churchill quoting Lord Rosebery will form the epilogue to Caspar Weinberger’s life: “Honour to the brave who will return no more. We shall not see their faces again….Their places, their comrades, will know them no more, for they will never return to us as we knew them. But in a nobler and higher sense, have they not returned to us today? They return to us with a message of duty, of courage, of patriotism. They return to us with a memory of high duty faithfully performed; they return to us with the inspiration of their example. Peace, then, to their dust, honour to their memory.”