December 06, 1982 12:00 PM

Brisbane, Australia, 1944. It was just after midnight, and the young duty officer on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence staff was sensing a crisis. Warnings had just been received that a Japanese task force was steaming toward a group of Allied ships poised to invade a key Pacific island. Alarmed by the threat of a surprise attack, Capt. Caspar Weinberger bolted up the street to wake the general. Within minutes MacArthur appeared in his bathrobe, imperial as always, and scanned the message. “Captain,” he asked, “what would you do?”

Weinberger swallowed hard, then explained that he believed the Japanese presence was a coincidence, unlikely to thwart the invasion. “On balance, sir, I would proceed,” he advised. “Good, Captain, that’s what I would do, too,” replied the general. “Then he just went back to bed,” recalls Weinberger. “For the next 12 hours I stayed on extra duty until that landing was completed. I felt a personal responsibility for its success.”

Almost four decades later, in his palatial suite at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s eyes crinkle with pleasure as he remembers that momentous encounter. “MacArthur is without question the military genius,” he says, gesturing toward a bust of his hero. Then the weary slump of his shoulders returns as Weinberger contemplates the mission given him by his current commander in chief: keeping America secure in the ’80s. “The Soviet threat is more real than we think,” he cautions, sounding the crack-of-doom warning of a nuclear age Paul Revere. “I don’t think they are devils incarnate, but they are on a path that indicates they plan ultimately to attack the West. The best way to maintain the peace is to have enough deterrent strength so they won’t dare attack us.”

Weinberger is now facing a major test of his rearmament crusade as the President attempts to persuade Congress to approve the Administration’s much-disputed “dense-pack” basing proposal for the controversial MX missile. The Secretary points out that the MX itself is not just his idea; plans for the 95-ton nuclear weapons costing $20 million apiece have been on Pentagon drawing boards since 1974. But actually placing the MXs in super-hardened silos—along with building the long-range B-1 bomber ($205 million each) and a fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines ($1.51 billion each)—has become a top priority in the Reagan-Weinberger plan to beef up U.S. strategic might. “We’ve neglected to modernize our forces while the Soviets have advanced,” argues Weinberger. “Every solution has problems, but the biggest danger would be if we didn’t do anything.”

Yet Weinberger’s near-religious zeal to do almost everything has deeply antagonized even key Republican legislators, who believe the Secretary’s intransigence has hardened the President’s resolve against defense cuts they believe must be made. As director of the Office of Management and Budget and as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Weinberger made headlines as “Cap the Knife” when he slashed spending for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Now his programs have spawned new nicknames: “Cap the Shovel,” for his urgent insistence on multibillion-dollar new-weapons systems whatever their impact on huge federal deficits, and “Caspar One-Note,” for being the most single-minded hard-liner in a hard-line Administration.

“His concern for growing Soviet military power is understandable,” says Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin, “but this does not excuse a failure on his part to really learn the subject…and to show the kind of skepticism necessary to deal with a $260 billion defense budget.” Maintains another defense expert: “Weinberger has overstated our powerlessness. He’s not a Cro-Magnon type, but he gives the impression he’s seen the Soviet missiles come rumbling through Red Square on May Day and said, ‘Oh, wow!’ If we rolled our weapons down Pennsylvania Avenue on the Fourth of July, we’d scare people too.”

Surprisingly, considering his background, some Capitol Hill veterans feel Weinberger has been less than adroit in waging his battles. “He came to Washington with the reputation of having a great deal of political skill,” observes one. “I’m surprised how he’s floundered so far. With the MX he’s made some rookie mistakes. Specifically, he floated the idea for an airborne patrol craft to carry MXs after the Air Force had already rejected it. Then he gets drawn into a discussion about how we can survive a nuclear war. Weinberger has contributed to the President’s vulnerability because he makes him look trigger-happy. On the plus side, he’s an attractive stand-up guy, and he’s tough.”

In fact, Weinberger, 64, is gentle, soft-spoken and courtly and seems genuinely baffled to find himself in the eye of a political storm. Among the President’s California Mafia, he stands out not as a narrow-gauged dogmatist but as a man of broad and considered interests. He has a Titian in his office, on loan from the National Gallery, a library of writings on or by Churchill, and is a regular at the National Symphony. Beneath these sophisticated tastes beats the heart of a straightforward, clean-living guy. He doesn’t smoke, seldom drinks and has been married to the same wife for 40 years. He is more relaxed at his 130-year-old house on Mount Desert Island in Maine than in his $750,000 mansion in D.C.’s posh Kalorama, and dotes on both his collie puppy, Kiltie, and the three grandchildren who call him “Dee.” “Psychologically,” says an old friend, “Cap’s in the same mold as Ronald Reagan. They tend to see things in elemental colors. Eternal dithering is not their thing. They appeal to the root in the American character that wants a solution.”

The private Weinberger has always been a man of deep convictions. Born in San Francisco in 1917, his passion for politics took shape literally at his attorney father’s knee. “Dad made up a long story about the Constitutional Convention for me and my brother when we were little,” Cap recalls, “and that sparked my interest in how American government worked. Then he took me to meet Herbert Hoover. So I guess you can say I’ve been a Republican since I was 7.” Cap’s mother, a violinist, nurtured his bent for the arts and, with her German-Jewish husband’s blessing, raised both her boys as Episcopalians.

After graduating from San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School, Cap won a scholarship back East, beginning what he describes as “a love affair with Harvard that has continued to this day.” In Cambridge, he immersed himself in the Harvard Crimson and eventually became the paper’s president. Though Cap was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the student council, the public school boy from out West didn’t make one of the university’s elite final clubs. “I’ve always thought that maybe Cap’s active social life in later years was an attempt to compensate,” says a former classmate. “He had no ‘side’ to him, as the British say. He was quiet, and his language was almost Pollyanna, even when he was angry. But even then he was intense—bright without being arrogant. He held his own among his Democratic friends as our forlorn conservative.”

Weinberger’s 1938 classbook predicted his career in government, but first came Harvard Law School. Then, in 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. The next summer Weinberger found himself on a transport, headed for three years’ duty in the South Pacific. The crossing was hardly time wasted. A few days out of San Francisco Cap played chess with an Army nurse, a second lieutenant from Maine. He teased her about outranking him by a few weeks; she teased him about being the only man on board with a bag of cookies. Something clicked, and 21 days later, when the ship berthed in Australia, Cap and Jane Dalton were married. “No point waiting around,” he recalls with a grin.

Throughout their marriage they have been sustained by their shared sense of family. “In the beginning we couldn’t even afford a car,” Jane remembers of the lean postwar years when she minded their two babies in Sausalito while he toiled long hours in a San Francisco law firm. The family’s pleasures in those days were simple ones. “We had a domino tournament that went on for years,” says Jane. Cap Jr., now a 35-year-old film and television specialist for the U.S. Information Agency, remembers camping trips to the California redwood country. Daughter Arlin, 39, a publications editor for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., still treasures the quiet nights at home with her father. “Dad loved the Dolittle books. He read all 20 of them to me first, then to my brother.”

Cap’s political life began in 1952, when Jane ran his winning campaign for state assemblyman. His star seemed ascendant, but losing his bid for California Attorney General in 1958, Cap says, cured him of the elective political bug. Instead, as a prosperous corporate lawyer, he became increasingly active in the state GOP. Regarded then as a moderate, even liberal, Republican, he was named state party chairman in 1962. His success, and his tirelessness in community service, did not go unnoticed; by 1967 Cap and Jane Weinberger even made it into the Social Register.

Weinberger first got to know Ronald Reagan well in 1966, when the ex-actor was stumping for Governor. The impression Reagan made was profound. “The Governor—I still call him that—can just light up a whole room with that electric smile,” says Cap admiringly. “He’s one of the most underestimated men in the world.” The respect was mutual, and by 1968 Reagan had installed Weinberger as state finance director. As a fiscal conservative, said another Reagan aide at the time, Cap proved “more Catholic than the Pope.” Two years later the Reagan-Weinberger team claimed their decision to raise taxes while cutting backon welfare and education spending had put California back on its feet.

That same year, 1970, Weinberger made his appearance on the national stage when President Richard Nixon appointed him chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Even Ralph Nader praised Weinberger’s reorganizational skills, which soon earned him higher appointments as OMB director and HEW Secretary. Soured, but untainted, by Watergate, Weinberger left Washington in 1975 for a lucrative job as general counsel with San Francisco’s mammoth Bechtel Group, Inc.

That he would risk tarnishing such an exemplary career by taking on the notoriously untamable Pentagon comes as no surprise to those who know him best. “He just loves the bigness of it,” says one. “But in his heart of hearts, Cap really wanted to be Secretary of State.” “The President asked me to take this specific post, no other,” says Weinberger. “I guess I came out of personal loyalty, and if there is a vagrant sense of duty in the background, I have New England ancestry, and that’s where it comes from.”

As the MX debate builds toward a climax, Weinberger will have no respite from his withering succession of 15-hour workdays. Despite frequent late-night calls on the untappable secure phone next to his bed, he rises at 5:30 a.m., jogs for 15 minutes, and is at his desk by 7. Staff members stand in awe of his even temper, the wit with which he presides over briskly run meetings, and his courtesy toward even the humblest clerk. Whenever he can, Weinberger sneaks a 10-minute catnap to gird him for the rigors of the Washington black-tie circuit. “You never finish,” he says. “You’re still on duty. You can’t go offstage.”

In fact, the theatrical metaphor may be less appropriate for Weinberger than for nearly any other top-level bureaucrat. While the spiritual ancestry of so many Washington movers and shakers may be traced in a devious line back to Byzantium, his style is to stand and be counted. “People in Washington are used to game-players,” says a colleague, “but it’s a mistake to read between the lines with Cap. There is no oblique dimension.” What remains in question is whether Cap Weinberger is the irresistible force or the immovable object. The fate of the MX may hold the answer.

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