OBITUARY : Les Aspin

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The Independent Online
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.