Washington — "Cap the Knife" is back in town. And Caspar Weinberger -- who earned that sobriquet as a cost-cutting director of the Office of Management and Budget and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Nixon administration -- will have to call on all his reputed skill and toughness as an administrator in his new assignment with the incoming Republican administration: secretary of defense.
The former infantry captain whom President-elect Ronald Reagan calls "my Disraeli" is charged with the awesome task of solving the complex problems of the nation's armed forces.
Why would Mr. Weinberger forsake the vice-presidency of the Bechtel Corporation, a multinational engineering company, to take on such a job?
"The President-elect asked me to do so, and I have always found it very difficult to say no to presidents," he declares. "I believe very strongly in Governor Reagan and what he's trying to do -- what he has done in California and what I think he can do for the nation."
Weinberger says he intends "to do my best and to have the defense forces of the United States in a state of full readiness to perform for the maintenance of the peace of the world."
Observers note that the new secretary's first task after moving into his office at the Pentagon will be to resolve a dispute between the President-elect's defense advisers, who are split over the immediate priorities facing the department. On the one hand, William Van Cleave, Mr. Reagan's senior defense adviser, believes that "the highest national priority" should be given to "fixing the weaknesses in our strategic posture as rapidly as possible." But opponents of this view, most notably Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, a one-time contender for the post of defense secretary and soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committe, favors the immediate invigoration of US conventional forces, believing that their Soviet counterparts are a much more immediate threat than any current US strategic inferiority.
Quite apart from helping determine national defense strategy, Mr. Weinberger will inherit a series of troubled weapons systems from the Carter administration , primarily the Trident submarine program, the woes of which are to be investigated by Congress next year, and the Navy's F-18 fighter, which has encountered cost, production, and performance problems.
Weinberger will also have to wrestle with deployment of the controversial MX missile system. Proposals to base it in Nevada and Utah are viewed a unduly costly and complicated by many defense experts, and as anathema by numerous environmentalists and residents of the states concerned.
Caspar Willard Weinberger was born in San Francisco on Aug. 8, 1917. He was graduated magna cum laude with an AB degree from Harvard in 1938, and three years later received an LLB degree from the university's law school. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
During World War II he saw service with the 41st Infantry Division in the Pacific before being transferred to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff. He was discharged from the Army in 1945 with the rank of captain and a bronze star.
In 1952 Weinberger was elected to the California Legislature, and reelected in 1954 and 1956 without opposition. In 1955 he was voted the most able member of the state legislature by reporters who covered the session.
Governor Reagan made him director of finance for California, and he turned a state budget deficit into a surplus, earning himself a smiling photograph of the governor inscribed: "The smile is for real, thanks to you. In friendship and best regards, Ron."
Two years later Weinberger joined the Nixon administration as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Subsequently, he served as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (1970-72), director of OMB (1972-73) , and HEW secretary (1973-75). He joined Bechtel Power Corporation's general counsel in 1975.
Mr. Weinberger, who has reviewed books for California newspapers and has recently been writing a newspaper column, once described himself as "a frustrated newspaperman." Reputedly endowed with a wry, even self-deprecating, sense of humor, he is an avid theater and concertgoer, though some contend that his real recreation is hard work. As state finance director in California he frequently arrived at his office at 7 a.m. and worked into the night. Weinberger and his wife Jane have two children: Arlin cerise and Caspar Willard Jr.
"Cap" Weinberger's selection for the Pentagon post has not received universal acclamation in the defense community. Critics point out that he is not thought to be particularly conversant with defense matters and that he returns to Washington with a reputation for budget slashing to head an agency that is about to embark on massively increased spending.
But others point to the fact that he has proved himself a first-rate manager both at OMB and HEW, and assert that a man of his intellectual gifts will undoubtedly learn rapidly on the job. In any case, they add, he has legions of experts at the Pentagon to draw on.
His longtime advocacy of higher military spending will undoubtedly endear him to the Pentagon brass, they add.
Many defense analysts are waiting to see what other appointments are made within the office of the secretary of defense before passing judgment on the Weinberger appointment. "It really depends on how he sets up his subcabinet," says one member of the President-elect's defense transition team. "If you get the right people in underneath him, you could look at this as a very astute choice."
The source maintains that Weinberger needs a deputy secretary of defense with "a very strong defense background" and suggests that the post, presently occupied by W. Graham Claytor, would be admirably filled by William Van Cleave. "He's the leading contender because of his position as senior adviser to Governor Reagan during the campaign and as defense transition team leader here."
The source adds that if Weinberger attempts to bring in his old colleague, Frank Carlucci, at present deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to fill the position as it is rumored he might, such an action would engender fierce opposition in Reagan transition circles. Mr. Carlucci, according to the sources, is "a Carter man who helped decimate the CIA."