The Aspin Tip-Off

THE first tip that something of consequence was happening in the life of Les Aspin came when the defense secretary canceled out on a Monitor breakfast that he was scheduled to have the next morning. His press aide said she was ``authorized'' to say only that ``something has come up.'' The brevity of the enigmatic explanation stirred up speculation among reporters. But no one was saying that Mr. Aspin might have lost his job. Within a few hours the president, with Aspin alongside, was telling Americans that Aspin was on his way out.

Much has been written about Aspin having been prepared for this ax to fall. Undoubtedly a search for a successor had been going on for awhile. But several of the reporters who were due to come to that Aspin breakfast are convinced - as I am - that the cheerful Mr. Aspin, known for being ever-hopeful that he can somehow work himself out of a problem, still thought he could hang onto his job right up until about the time he called off the breakfast.

If he had known of the finality of the president's decision a day or two earlier, why had he gone ahead with the breakfast? Why had he agreed to come into this gathering a week before it was to occur if he knew, as one reporter put it, that his leaving was a ``done deal?'' This reasoning persuades us that Aspin was forced out, despite the nice words the president had for him and the gracious way Aspin responded. Aspin said it was time for him to do something different. He had worked hard and was ready to go. Aspin, the good soldier, would say such things. But he also was happy that President Clinton was allowing him to put the best spin possible on what might have been called an out-and-out firing.

It seemed only fitting that our breakfast group should become a part of the Aspin departure story. Over the years he had been a frequent guest at our table - more than 20 times, mostly after becoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Aspin was always popular with the press. This exceptionally bright fellow was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's ``whiz kids.'' His academic background includes a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after studying at Yale and Oxford.

I go back with Aspin to the early 1970s when I once spent the evening with him and columnist Joseph Kraft, in Madison, Wisc., during the McGovern presidential campaign. Aspin knew all of the players in the state, knew what they were thinking, and even seemed to know how the campaign would play out. He loved to hold the floor. He was fun. And we thoroughly enjoyed being with him. Aspin is an entertaining academician. He's particularly good at theorizing and at providing scenarios. During the Gulf war he met with our group several times, each time giving us his informed ``concept'' of what would happen. We knew he was talking daily to top Pentagon people. So we knew that within his ``concept'' there was news. Aspin's ``theorizing'' about the US involvement in and plans for that war was on target.

But he was more politician than professor. At one breakfast, during the 1992 campaign, Aspin seemed to go out of his way to praise Mr. Clinton. Some of us felt certain that Aspin was bidding for the defense secretary position. This academician-politician wasn't really suited for a position where he had to run things. He was admirably suited for Congress - but not to head defense. He reached too far and he fell short.

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