The Collapse Of Les Aspin

THE RISE AND FALL OF LES ASPIN is a Washington tragedy. He had spent most of his professional life thinking about better ways of defending the United States. But when he was asked by Bill Clinton to be secretary of defense, the 54-year-old chairman of the House Armed Services Committee hesitated. The challenge was irresistible: with the cold war over, the nation's defense establishment would have to be rebuilt "from the bottom up." The basic architecture had been designed 45 years before by the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal. "Now I have the chance to structure American defense for the next 45 years," Aspin said to a friend last January when he accepted the position.

But Aspin knew what had happened to James Forrestal. In 1949, caught between vicious interservice feuds, unable to persuade the White House to spend the money to face the Soviet threat adequately, Forrestal had been driven from office. "I am a victim of the Washington scene," he declared. Two months later, seeing communists under his bed, he tied a noose around his neck and jumped out of a window.

Les Aspin is apparently more stable than the tormented Forrestal, and his departure last week was all very dignified. President Clinton praised him at some length for mapping out a new defense strategy, and for his "razor-sharp mind." Nevertheless, for Aspin, drawn and tense in his customary ill-fitting suit, the moment was bitter. Although White House aides did their best to look somber, they were, of course, delighted. Aspin had come to be seen as one of the administration's main liabilities, and his replacement, Adm. Bobby Inman, an establishment favorite, was sure to be greeted enthusiastically by the press. The president had shown that he had finally learned how to fire--and hire--someone without making a mess of it.

Aspin believed that he had done a far better job than anyone, including the president, had given him credit for. His problems, he believed, were largely cosmetic. "I think Les realized he was at risk of becoming the Dan Quayle of this administration," said a friend, "the man the media watched to make silly mistakes." He knew, however, that in Washington, success is based on appearances, and that his image was all wrong. Clinton needed someone who could help convince the military that the president was not a draftdodging softy. Aspin, verbose and academic, came across like Clinton, only more so.

Aspin's bitterness is not unjustified. He was, in fact, a fall guy for the stumbles of the Clinton administration on Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. He may be the first casualty of Clinton's error-prone foreign policy, but it is doubtful he will be the last.

A Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and a "whiz kid" under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the 1960s, Aspin bad been a star in Congress ever since he won a seat from Wisconsin at the age of 32. But his downfall at the Pentagon may have been inevitable. The office of the secretary of defense is at a bloody angle. It comes under cross-fire from the various uniformed services, which vie with each other for glory and money and from the White House and the State Department. Some defense secretaries, like McNamara, try to get control of the military, and pay a terrible psychic price. (Torn by Vietnam, McNamara was known to weep in his office in the evening.) Others, like Caspar Weinberger, try to keep the generals happy, and end up busting the budget.

It takes a bulldozer personality to master the Pentagon. Aspin, though talkative and bluff, is actually shy. Married briefly in the 1970s, he lives alone and works almost ceaselessly. He is known for squiring handsome and intelligent women about Georgetown, but for years his most devoted companion was a sheepdog that slept under his desk and faintly resembled its master. Aspin was broken hearted when the dog died four years ago.

To achieve control over the military, the secretary of defense needs strong managers. Aspin, who knows he is a poor delegator (he once spent 90 minutes trying to find a secretary for a Pentagon consultant), was frustrated by the White House's failure to quickly clear his appointments. There were so many empty civilian offices that the brass like to joke that Aspin in the Pentagon was "home alone." Forced to meet White House diversity requirements, Aspin was unable to find many qualified women and minorities with an interest or background in defense. Some of his recruits arrived with a grudge against anyone in uniform. One young assistant secretary stunned her military staff by announcing as they were introduced: "Of course, you realize that I will have to treat you as hostile until you prove otherwise."

Aspin likes to think out loud, a refreshing habit in a politician but a dangerous one for a cabinet secretary. It got him into trouble right away when he went public with doubt s about the practicality of simply abolishing the ban on gays in the military. Aspin wasn't saying anything surprising; he knew that Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn would never let the new administration simply abolish the ban. But his remarks on "Face the Nation" last January angered White House aides, and they gave him little credit three months later for hammering out the eventual "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise.

At the same time, he lost credibility with the military, which were quick to see that Aspin lacked clout at the White House. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell was respectful to Aspin, but cool. Powell's independent streak showed when the White House encountered its first foreign-policy crisis. At National Security Council sessions on Bosnia last Spring, the JCS chairman held the floor, swatting away any suggestions that the United States intervene with force. Aspin, for the most part, merely echoed him. Clinton's top aides were miffed. Couldn't Aspin control his chief? Couldn't he push the military for some real options?

Yet the fault lay largely with the president. Discouraged after endless sessions on Bosnia, Aspin would gripe to aides that White House meetings were like "college bull sessions." Clinton seemed unwilling to set any clear objectives, and his top advisers--national-security adviser Tony Lake, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Aspin--never could agree on a course of action. Instead, Lake, who was trying to play honest broker, would present several options to Clinton--who was angry because he wanted consensus among his advisers. The result was more meetings.

And Aspin came to feel increasingly marginalized. He told one friend that when he looked at the White House, he felt like a child with his nose pressed up against the windowpane, peeking at a party to which he had not been invited. He became a target for leakers. one widely publicized story had Aspin announcing he was going to suspend airdrops over beleaguered Bosnia--only to be countermanded by an outraged White House. In fact, the pause in the airdrops was necessary to permit aerial reconnaissance. But White House aides, eager to show Clinton's willingness to stand up to the Pentagon, continued to spread the story around.

Aspin was dubbed gaffe-prone, a lethal affliction in Washington. When the Pentagon had to repair Aspin's leaky roof in Georgetown to install some communications equipment, reporters saw a scam. Aspin was furious. Where had the press been, he wondered, when one Reagan Defense Department official insisted that the Pentagon install a secure communications system in the summer home he owned in France? When Aspin took a girlfriend to Venice to stay in a fancy hotel--and his usual Pentagon backup went with him--the press corps demanded to know the bill to taxpayers ($30,000). Aspin protested that he needed his staff close by.

Aspin's great passion was his "Bottom-Up Review," BUR in Pentagonese. He wanted to design a post-cold-war force that could fight two medium-size wars at once--in Iraq, say, and Korea--yet still meet Clinton's goal of cutting more than $100 billion from the Pentagon budget. The services and the civilians worked through the process with surprising collegiality. But BUR's final product--10 army divisions, 12 aircraft carriers, 20 air wings and a good-size Marine Corps--missed Clinton's budget goal by close to $50 billion. Meanwhile, Aspin was continuing to alienate the military with his drollery. At a USO ball, he joked that the next time the Pentagon had a sensitive issue to announce, he would call on Major Dad instead of Gen. Carl Mundy, the Marine Corps commandant who tried to ban marines from marrying. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. John Shalikashvili, was affronted when Aspin said the departure of Colin Powell made him feel like the coach of the Washington Redskins, wiped out by injuries and bad trades.

In Somalia, Aspin managed to infuriate nearly everyone. When he turned down the ground commander's request for additional armor--and 18 GIs died because there were no tanks to rescue them--the grunts felt betrayed. Aspin's subsequent trip up to Capitol Hill was a fiasco. Though he warned the White House it would be a mistake to brief Congress before setting a clear policy, he was sent anyway, and was roundly denounced for the massacre.

In fact, Aspin was only partially to blame for the Somalia disaster. He alone among Clinton's senior advisers had warned that American forces were getting overcommitted. Even if he had approved the armor, it probably would have arrived too late. The real fault lay with the pigheadedness of U.N. political advisers in Somalia, who insisted on a manhunt of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, and the macho culture of U.S. Rangers, who got themselves into a deadly jam without planning a way out.

Still, Aspin knew that he was damaged goods. After the massacre, he offered Clinton his resignation. The president turned it down, but the endgame had begun. In early November, Clinton quietly told his chief of staff, Mack McLarty, to begin searching for Aspin's replacement. (Among those first approached: former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, a Republican.) Over Thanksgiving, Aspin made the "intellectual" decision to step down. (In his snakebit way, he flew commercial to save taxpayers money and immediately drew scorn for crossing the American Airlines picket line.) Viscerally, however, Aspin was in a state of denial. He still hoped to turn things round. He bought new suits and hit the talk-show circuit. But his syntax failed again, and the media reported more Aspin muddle.

By the time he resigned last week, his replacement, Admiral Inman, was already in place in a Washington hotel. Clinton was gracious with the bad news. He told Aspin to take some time off and come back with an idea of what else he would like to do.

But there really isn't anything else. Aspin's life is his work. Last February he went straight from an appearance on "Meet the Press" to get a pacemaker put into his heart. The truth is that Aspin has no idea of what he would like to do. His whole career--his 22 years in Congress, his eight years as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee--had led him to the job he had just lost. Aspin was a good soldier last week. He held up his head, praised his successor and gave no interviews. But he is a casualty of the Washington wars, and the wounds be sustained will not heal quickly, if ever.