Remembering James Schlesinger

This Aug. 24, 2004 file photo shows former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, chairman of the Detention Operations Review Panel speaking at the Pentagon.
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson

James Schlesinger died last week after a long life of public service. I came to know him when he was Secretary of Defense during Watergate and I was a young Pentagon reporter.

Before coming to the Pentagon, he had headed both the Atomic Energy Commission and the CIA, and later served as Democrat Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Energy.

What set him apart from today's Washington crowd was that he actually knew something about something other than politics and fundraising.

Truth to tell, he was one of the worst politicians I ever knew.

After Nixon left and Gerald Ford became president, the joke was that Secretary of State Kissinger would begin his briefings to the new president by saying, "Mr, President, as I'm sure you are aware ..."

Schlesinger would just blurt out, "Mr. President, you probably don't know this, but ..."

But what he lacked in finesse, he more than made up for it in character and courage.

When Nixon operatives told him to remove Watergate files from the Justice Department and bury them at the CIA, he told them in so many words, "Make me."

In the final days of Watergate, he became so concerned with Richard Nixon's stability that he ordered safeguards to prevent the White House from issuing direct orders to the military.

It was years before any of that became known, but in one of the country's darkest hours, he was one of those who held the government together.

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