BILL CASEY (whom no one called William), that scrappy, street-smart - and ruthless - buckaroo, represented the Reagan era at its most aggressive and adventurous. Here is a book that tries to explain his combative - and ultimately self-destructive - personality: What made Casey run? Answers don't come easily, despite the access granted Joseph Persico by Mrs. Casey to private papers.
Openly contemptuous of Congress and the media, of liberals and career bureaucrats, rules and regulations that cramped his style, this Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director and former agent in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) both strengthened and unleashed an organization that had been reined in under Jimmy Carter and Stansfield Turner.
Casey returned the CIA to the cold-war '50s as the action arm of American foreign policy: ``I'm looking for a place to start rolling back the Communist empire,'' he replied to a journalist's inquiries about Nicaragua. Casey also plunged into the failed Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal, and undoubtedly would have joined Oliver North, John Poindexter, et al., in the dock had he not died suddenly in May 1987, defiant to the end.
First as a tax lawyer and venture capitalist in New York, and later as a Washington official, Casey constantly straddled the fine, Wild-West, line between cowboy and outlaw. Casey ``never saw an ethical dimension to business. Is it illegal? If not, then you can do it,'' said an old friend. ``You don't defraud investors. You don't break the law. But bare-knuckled competition? That's the American way. That was what made America.'' Here is Social Darwinism at its crudest.
Yet Casey hungered for acceptance by the respectable, old- money folk (``white shoe boys,'' he called them, disdainfully). They had long since replaced their shooting irons with membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, which reluctantly granted him admittance.
The normal answers don't apply. Despite his slovenly dress and eating habits, Casey was no poor boy driven by poverty. To the contrary: his moderately well-off family had easily put him through law school despite the Great Depression.
So what stirred that ferocious energy and zest for data, that obsession with anticommunism, with action and victory, with gaining respect from his peers and admiration from his subordinates? What prompted that outrageous, often bullying temper - and the flashes of financial generosity for those in need?
Above all, what is Casey's significance: Does he deserve credit for helping to win the cold war, or blame for the Iran-contra shenanigans that weakened the Reagan government and the constitutional underpinning of the United States?
These questions hang over this informative, but also conventional and overly restrained narrative biography. Joseph Persico is experienced, a serviceable writer, sympathetic to his subject, but not overly so. Though nearly two-thirds of his text focuses on Casey's six years as CIA director, this is not really a CIA book. There are no revelations and little that goes beyond the standard accounts, aside from some passing remarks about Casey's interest in enlisting American business overseas.
The predictable names appear. There is Max Hugel, that high-flying supersalesman whom the CIA old guard quickly shot down; Bobby Ray Inman, everyone's favorite intelligence professional, but not Casey's; Dewey Clarridge, Casey's appointee as the flamboyant generalissimo of the contra war; John McMahon, Casey's sympathetic sparring partner at Langley and an invaluable counterweight to the go-get-'em wild men; and John Horton, another serious professional who left after his sober appraisal of Mexico's future proved insufficiently apocalyptic for Casey.
A few marginal figures also are present: Ronald Reagan, whose feckless and unbusinesslike ways Casey found exasperating; George Bush, a ``white shoe'' boy par excellence, whom Casey despised; Henry Kissinger, who patronized Casey and was detested in return; James Baker, whom Casey labeled as an ultra-ambitious intriguer and media manipulator; and Bob Woodward, whose alleged deathbed interview with Casey is dismissed by Persico - after careful appraisal of the evidence - as sheer blarney. All these personages played their part in Casey's Washington career.
Casey was not merely close-mouthed, but was remarkably unintrospective, unconcerned about his own inner thoughts. He spoke, even to his closest ``friends'' - more associates than true friends - only of the history, business, and politics that dominated his life. So there's not much to go on.
Persico's subtext, nevertheless, is quietly revealing, with overtones of Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald, and John O'Hara. Here is Casey the self-made millionaire, a Roman Catholic in a WASP-dominated business world, too proud - or blind - to adjust to anything or anyone, finally stumbling into the Iran-contra disaster out of sheer deviousness and hunger for glory. A populist by background and style, a Republican by affiliation, Casey used his first-rate mind for third-rate purposes.
History fascinated him, yet Casey will go down in it as proof of Tallyrand's dictum: ``above all, not too much zeal.''