KGO radio host and Jewish community activist John Rothmann was reminiscing this week about Caspar Weinberger, the former U.S. secretary of defense and native San Franciscan who died Tuesday, March 28 in Maine at the age of 88.
Rothmann especially enjoys telling a story about Weinberger’s discovery that he had Jewish roots — a fact that apparently made the Reagan cabinet member very uncomfortable.
Rothmann, who worked in the Reagan White House, recalled a story that the San Francisco Chronicle’s political editor told him in 1958. The editor asked Weinberger why he lost his bid to become California state attorney general. The secretary responded, “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t, and the gentiles thought I was.”
Weinberger had a Jewish grandfather, but — given his surname — always stressed that he was not Jewish, according to “Jewish Power,” a book on the relationship between American Jews and the U.S. government, by J.J. Goldberg, now editor of the Jewish Forward in New York.
Born in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 1917, Weinberger grew up in Pacific Heights and got his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. He practiced law at the San Francisco firm Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe before his election in 1952 to the state Assembly as a Republican from San Francisco.
In the ’50s, he hosted a weekly panel program on KQED-TV entitled “Profile: Bay Area,” and wrote book reviews for the Chronicle.
Weinberger met Reagan, then an actor considering a run for California governor, in San Francisco in 1966. He became one of Reagan’s top aides, and was an adviser to the Republican governor’s presidential campaign in 1980, after which he was tapped for the Cabinet.
When Weinberger became secretary of defense, a position he held from 1981 to 1987, he visited Israel for the first time. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, his guide, who was a prosecutor in the trial against Adolf Eichmann, told him, “If you were in Germany at that time, this would have happened to you, too.”
“Weinberger said in a loud voice, ‘I am not a Jew,'” Rothman said, adding, “His ambivalence on his Jewish identity had a huge impact on him.”
Weinberger was best known for his entanglement in the Iran-Contra scandal, but he made headlines in the Jewish community when he pushed for a life sentence for Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who pled guilty in 1987 to spying for Israel.
Weinberger authored a 40-page, classified assessment of the damage Pollard’s actions caused to U.S. interests. A four-page version, which was not classified, compared Pollard to other well-known spies.
In the unclassified version, Weinberger said it was difficult to conceive of a greater harm to national security than what Pollard had caused.
Weinberger’s comments were “a significant, if not the most significant factor in implementing the breach by the government in their agreement to not seek a life sentence against Jonathan Pollard,” said Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s attorneys.
Weinberger counterbalanced a Reagan administration that was quick to support Israel. Reagan and his secretaries of state, Alexander Haig and George Schultz, were seen as more responsive than Weinberger to the Jewish community during the Lebanon War.
Weinberger was credited with orchestrating the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System planes, or AWACS, to Saudi Arabia, which was fiercely opposed by Israel and the American Jewish community. The sale went through, but contributed to the growth of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
Jewish leaders said they found that Weinberger often was “tense” in his dealings with the community.
Weinberger was charged in federal court for his role in the sale of weapons to Iran to finance the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, but was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
He went on to serve as publisher of Forbes Magazine.
Alexandra J. Wall, staff writer at j., contributed to this report.