As the Cold War was ending in August of 1989, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), the man that President-elect Clinton nominated Tuesday to be defense secretary, accepted an invitation from then-Soviet military leaders to tour long-secret military facilities.
To the surprise of the Soviets and some Americans on the trip, Aspin--long a critic of Pentagon spending priorities--had saved some firepower for the other side. In a meeting with the Soviet armed forces chief of staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, Aspin launched a fierce assault on the Soviet Union's continued high level of military spending and its reluctance to withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe.
"Instead of doing the usual walk-through, grip-and-grin thing, Les started tearing into the issues," said Washington defense analyst Phillip A. Karber, who also made the trip. "This guy who had been an ankle-biter to the U.S. military Establishment had turned into a Doberman," Karber said, "but this time, he had hold of the Soviets' throats and wasn't going to let go.
"You could see these guys regretting they had ever invited him."
For Karber, the incident was a defining moment in Aspin's evolution from Pentagon "ankle-biter" to a defense intellectual wary of any potential military adversary. The 54-year-old Aspin in recent years has tempered his barbs aimed at the Pentagon, moved to the political center on most matters of military policy and shifted his focus to broader aspects of military policy.
There remains, however, a puckish aspect to the slightly disheveled Wisconsin intellectual, who holds a doctoral degree in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who, as a young Army officer, served a two-year stint in the late 1960s in a Pentagon office known widely as the "whiz kids' shop." Even as he has mellowed in his House leadership post, Aspin continues to impress and exasperate military leaders with his freewheeling thoughts and iconoclastic style.
In recent months, Aspin has zinged the military for its reluctance to cut troop strength below its proposed 1.6-million-member "base force," and has presented a detailed rationale for cutting defense budgets by at least $91 billion over the next five years.
As Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, Aspin will need all his intellect, and a healthy dose of management expertise, if he hopes to reshape military budgets and priorities. He will also need all the political skill gained in 22 years in the House of Representatives if he is to rally fractious congressional Democrats around his plans.
He has made a career of using wit and policy expertise to irritate and overturn established institutions. In the process, however, Aspin, like Clinton, has developed a reputation as an ambitious politician whose eagerness to compromise meant he could not always be trusted, and at being more adept at intellectual reverie than at practical management.
Aspin has been chairman of the House Armed Services Committee since 1985, when he mounted an insurgent campaign to overturn the committee's seniority system and jumped over seven more senior members to win the top spot on the panel.
Over the next two years, however, Aspin enraged many of the liberal Democrats who had catapulted him to the chairmanship: He brokered a compromise to give the Pentagon money to build and deploy 50 controversial MX missiles, and voted to approve military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras.
Aspin declared that congressional approval of the missiles would give the Ronald Reagan Administration a powerful "bargaining chip" in arms negotiations with the then-Soviet Union. The angry Democrats made him pay in 1987, when they ousted him from the committee post. A chastened Aspin quickly made amends, conceding that "you've got to be frank about what you're doing," and was reinstated to the defense panel's chairmanship within two weeks by the Democratic Caucus.
Retired Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, for whom Aspin churned out government waste-fraud-and-abuse reports as an aide in the early 1960s, said Aspin's shifts "are a matter of pragmatism and a matter of genuine recognition of political realities: Most of us get a little more conservative as we get older."
Proxmire added that the widespread image of Aspin as a reckless firebrand was more a function of his circumstances as a junior House member who had to shout to be heard than a reflection of his real political philosophy.
Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.), an Armed Services Committee member with whom Aspin has occasionally sparred, said Aspin is now more forthright with fellow House members, and deals better with warring House and Senate defense chieftains such as conservative Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and liberal Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), who likely will step in to Aspin's chairmanship.
Ireland said the incoming Administration could benefit from Aspin's experience in dealing with congressional Democratic leaders, many of whom "are not necessarily in the new President's camp."
Aspin, he said, "has had to ride the bucking bronco of the Democratic Caucus, and he brings a unique view and experience to the job. He has had to deal in a pragmatic way with some really tough pulling and pushing and shoving in that Democratic Caucus."
In confirmation hearings, Aspin is unlikely to face a barrage of criticism about his personal life, as did 1988 defense secretary-nominee, Republican Sen. John Tower. But he has drawn criticism for using taxpayer's dollars to establish a Wisconsin Procurement Institute to help Wisconsin industries win Pentagon contracts.
Aspin also has accepted $125,000 in contributions from defense contractors' political action committees--a move that Proxmire called "a mistake" for a candidate whose seat was as secure as Aspin's.
Among the more daunting tasks awaiting him is management of the more than 4 million civilian and uniformed Pentagon employees, many of whom are to lose their jobs as the military continues major reduction measures. Clinton has said he would cut 200,000 more troops than the Bush Administration had planned, lowering the force of active-duty troops to 1.4 million from its 1987 peak of 2.2 million. The move is certain to be resisted by the military.
Aspin also will be responsible for finding at least another $60 billion in budget cuts over the next five years, as Clinton has promised. And he will almost certainly have to deal with a number of controversial social issues, including proposals to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
As those challenges unfold, Aspin will have to ensure that the U.S. military remains flexible and ready to fight in any one of dozens of world hot spots. And he has put the military on notice that he will press for their use more aggressively than has the Bush Administration.
In a September speech before the Jewish Institute for National Affairs, Aspin gave notice he will not readily accept military arguments that the use of U.S. troops in foreign engagements should be rigidly limited.
The end of the Cold War and development of increasingly accurate weapons, he said, have undercut the "all-or-nothing" approach of military leaders who often argue against intervention out of fear that conflicts will escalate out of control. His position is squarely at odds with that of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Managing all of these changes at the Pentagon will test Aspin's executive mettle far beyond the chairmanship of the 56-member House Armed Services Committee, and press the limits of his own professorial style.
"Les is a deep thinker, a ponderer, one who loves the challenge of strategizing, almost to a fault," said Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), a member of Aspin's committee who has known Aspin for 22 years and been a frequent political ally.
"Les is not a tinkerer," she said. "He's a big thinker. He looks at the big concept, the big picture, how we draw down, how we use our assets. I prefer to look at the individual in the eye, the young soldier or sailor or airman we're sending somewhere to do their duty, but I think he's not terribly comfortable dealing with personnel issues."