"Romantic" is not the first word that comes to mind when referring to Robert McNamara, but the 88-year-old former defense secretary is a dove when it comes to love. McNamara will wed his Italian-born sweetheart, Diana Masieri Byfield, next week in a ceremony in Italy.
This is the second marriage for both.
"She's a very warm, kind person," said a clearly pleased McNamara. "Very amusing."
His fiancee was more effusive. "I was fascinated by this man," Byfield said yesterday. "I thought he was very handsome, to begin with, and I loved his mind. And his eyes, in particular -- when he looks at people, you can tell he's really interested. He's interested in everything, everything. He doesn't stop at war or politics."
A prominent and controversial figure in Washington for decades, McNamara served as defense secretary to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson between stints as president of Ford Motor Co. and the World Bank.
McNamara has been single since 1981, when his first wife died of cancer. He was introduced to the 70-year-old Byfield four years ago by mutual friends, shortly after she was widowed. The two have traveled abroad, notably to China and last year to Rome, where one of her ancestors was beatified by the pope for liberating Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in 1683.
They will be married in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, on Sept. 16 in a private ceremony. "We're not allowing anyone else to come," he said with a laugh. The couple will honeymoon in Sardinia, then split their time between homes in Middleburg and the Watergate in Washington.
Byfield was born in Aviano, Italy, and still has a thick accent, although she came to the United States more than 40 years ago. As a teenager she showed horses and drove rally cars. She was married for more than three decades to Ernest Byfield, a former OSS officer and public relations executive. Byfield has lived for many years on a farm in Middleburg, and is an avid tennis player.
"I love the game," she said. "I play as much as I can and as often as I can."
"She's a very good tennis player," said McNamara. "She can beat the hell out of me."
Many friends believed McNamara would never marry again. He was wed for 40 years to Margaret Craig, his teenage sweetheart, with whom he had two daughters and a son. He often said theirs was a "marriage made in heaven." Margaret, a former teacher, used her position as a Cabinet spouse to launch a reading program for young children -- Reading Is Fundamental, which became the largest literacy program in the country.
In 1981, when she was dying of cancer, Margaret and Robert talked about his future. "She was insistent that I remarry," he said. "I was just as insistent that I wouldn't -- and I didn't, at least for 23 years."
Instead he kept busy with a variety of interests and causes, including writing three books. He was the star of last year's "Fog of War," the Errol Morris documentary where he discussed the difficult decision-making process during the Vietnam conflict. The film stirred up yet another round of controversy about McNamara's role in escalating that war, and one Vietnam veteran posted a bitter Internet attack, blaming McNamara for misleading President Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin crisis.
Using her maiden name, Byfield posted this response: "You are certainly entitled to your opinion. However, I do believe you do not know completely the story Mr. McNamara lived through. It is understandable to judge and to condemn especially when we experienced something awful like you did serving in Vietnam for one full year. The problem is that we tend not to put ourselves in the place of the person who is in the hot seat. I am sure however, that you agree with me that McNamara at least had the courage to write books and make a movie (for which he was not paid) to explain the whole story."
The subject of marriage came up earlier this year, although McNamara never actually proposed to Byfield. Instead he posed a series of hypothetical questions to her: "If we married . . . I'm not proposing . . . but when would we get married? What you do think about getting married in Assisi?"
She agreed to wed because, she said, "I am a Catholic, I am 70 years old, and old-fashioned."
"Now I'm concentrating on Bob," she said. "I want to make him happy. I don't think he's been that happy in the past few years. I think he's the marrying kind."
And, as it turns out, so does he.