OBITUARY : Les Aspin

When Bill Clinton became President of the United States in January 1993, among his cabinet choices one received almost uniform praise. As the new Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, a Wisconsin congressman for 22 years, seemed ideal.

Aspin's intellectual grasp of American military policy, honed during seven years as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was widely recognised while, with his jovial personality and rumpled appearance, he was popular on the Washington circuit. "He never met a person who didn't like him," Clinton said.

No one in those first days of the administration could have predicted that Aspin's Pentagon tenure would be so short. Washington whisperers knew he was in trouble in the autumn when he was forced to invest in a new wardrobe by advisers who hoped that sharper tailoring might translate into a sharper political image. When he resigned in December, it was after a series of policy slips and public relations gaffes from his office.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Aspin was the son of a British accountant who had emigrated to the United States, via Canada, from Yorkshire. A star school pupil, he won an undergraduate degree from Yale and later a Masters in economics from Oxford University and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After working on Capitol Hill and in John F. Kennedy's White House in the early Sixties, he later moved to the Pentagon where he shone as one of the Defence Secretary Robert McNamara's number-crunching "Whiz Kids". He was passionately opposed to the Vietnam war at the time.

After returning to Wisconsin to teach at Marquette University, Aspin was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 32. He remained in Congress for his south-eastern district for an unbroken 11 terms. He was instantly awarded a place on the Armed Services Committee, from where he delighted Washington reporters by issuing almost weekly bulletins attacking the cosy links between the defence establishment and Capitol Hill and exposing spending anomalies in the Pentagon, such as tax- payers' dollars being diverted to look after the pets of officers away on mission.

Aspin's early reputation as a liberal and gadfly faded, however, after his election to the committee's chairmanship in 1985. He enraged the left of his party, for instance, by refusing to oppose President Reagan's development of the MX missile system and by supporting funding for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He later became an early advocate of military intervention against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait.

The selection of Aspin as Defense Secretary seemed all the more natural because he had served as adviser to Bill Clinton on defence matters all through the 1992 presidential race. Only a few voices, mostly from within the military itself, expressed concern about his suitability for the post. His skills on Capitol Hill, as a mediator between hawks and doves and as a walking encyclopaedia on defence issues were questioned by no one. But he had had no experience of heading a large organisation. And for a Defense Secretary, decisiveness may be more valuable than a talent for compromise.

Trouble came Aspin's way quickly. The heart problems that had been with him for several years forced him into hospital in March 1993, when he was fitted with a pacemaker. Meanwhile, he was tarnished by the controversy over Clinton's proposals to end the ban on homosexuals in the military. Early on, he undercut the President by indicating early on that the proposals would be opposed by Congress and the defence establishment itself. He spoke out of line once on Bosnia policy. Most damaging, however, was a botched raid by US soldiers in Somalia in October 1993 that left 18 servicemen dead. It later surfaced that Aspin had resisted two requests by the military for more back-up in Somalia. These difficulties, and a rapidly growing reputation for fuzzy leadership, eclipsed other personal initiatives, including the expansion of the role of women in combat and the launching of a "bottom-up" review of the armed forces in the light of the end of the Cold War.

Officially, Aspin moved first to offer his resignation to the President. But most in Washington believe he was pushed or that he would have been eventually. However it happened, his departure from the Pentagon was a tragedy for a man who was one of America's best and brightest who finally was only able to occupy the pinnacle of his career for 11 short months.

In February this year, Clinton gave Aspin some consolation, appointing him leader of a special presidential commission to review the structure and size of the US intelligence agencies. John Deutch, who has recently been appointed the new head of the CIA and was one of Aspin's oldest friends, had lunch with him only last Friday. There was no hint then of the massive stroke that felled Aspin hours later. "He seemed marvellous," Deutch said.

David Usborne

Les Aspin, politician: born Milwaukee, Wisconsin 21 July 1938; Member of Congress from 1st Wisconsin District 1970-92; Chairman, House Armed Services Committee 1985-92; Defense Secretary 1993; married (marriage dissolved); died Washington DC 21 May 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning