On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, was shopping the Georgetown Safeway. He was dressed in tie, shirt , sports jacket, loafers and white socks, and he had bought a little turkey, some foot powder and some other items. He put these into a basket and then darted off to gather other items. For this we can all give thanks.
It does not seem much, I know, to report that the secretary of defense was shopping and what he had bought. It is probably more important to say something about his policies -- about how he bested David Stockman or his plans for seeding Europe with missiles. But it is a fact that there is probably not another country where the defense minister, the civilian head of all the armed services and the man who could blow up much of the world, does his own shopping.
There probably is no other country where a man like Cap Weinberger can come into a place and not be preceded by men in uniform, cars waiting outside with their motors running, lots of bull-like men in the general vicinity and lots of people from the store running out, offering their best meats, their best cheese, the private stock of this and that, which the average person cannot buy.
In Washington, this sort of thing virtually never happens, and I never cease to marvel at it. I meet the secretary of this or the secretary of that out jogging. I see them on the street and I bump into them in the movies. They are everywhere and you can walk right up to them and tell them a thing or two. I have never seen this happen, but it could happen and probably does.
Is this a big thing? I think so. It shows how close the government remains to the people. It shows that, despite our strength, wealth and responsibilities, we remain a small town of a country. The Congress, for instance, is too chicken to raise its own salaries. Its chief worry is how to handle its mail. I suppose this could be called petty and provincial. It could also be called responsive.
I helped write a movie once about Washington. I was the consultant and in the script the screenwriter had the politician-hero of the film, a senator, ride around in a limousine. I had to tell the writer that senators don't ride around in limos. It's in Hollywood that the big shots get limousines. In Washington, they get what they can afford.
When I first came to Washington, I followed Scoop Jackson around the supermarket. I could not get over the fact that a powerful senator shopped for himself. I go to restaurants and see former heads of the CIA. They eat out in the open like anyone else. You would think they would have bodyguards. You would think that something special would be done for them. In other countries, something special would be done. In this country nothing is done.
I marvel at this. I marveled, too, at how the 55-mile-an hour speed limit became an issue at the Republican National Convention. Some speaker got up and denounced it. He said the country was going to the dogs and the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit was why. He said it was an example of Washington interfering in the lives of people. He got a lot of applause, and I thought about how it would be impossible to exlain to a foreigner that the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit was cited as an example of government repression in the United States. They wouldn't understand.
It is harder to get close to a movie star than a senator. It is impossible to see a television star shopping, but not someone who controls the largest military machine in the history of the world. You cannot get close to really rich people on the street because they are afraid they will be kidnaped, but you could dig a banana into the side of the secretary of defense, tell him it's a gun, march him over to the cheese counter and force him to buy something soft and smelly.
I am a critical person. I am that by nature and I am paid to be that. Nearly 150 times a year, I manage to find something wrong with the government or with the country. So maybe on this one day I would like to pause and say that only in the United States could someone like me get so close to someone like Weinberger. I felt sorry for him. Such a powerful man. Such an exalted office.
Such a small Thanksgiving turkey.