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Frank Carlucci, defense secretary and tamer of federal bureaucracies, dies at 87

Frank C. Carlucci III, a soft-spoken but hard-driving crisis manager for four presidents and whose reputation as a tamer of federal bureaucracies led to stints as secretary of defense, national security adviser and deputy CIA director, died June 3 at his home in McLean, Va. He was 87.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a family friend, Susan Davis.

Mr. Carlucci’s rise was linked with those of his Princeton wrestling teammate Donald H. Rumsfeld and Caspar W. Weinberger, both of whom were entrenched in Republican politics and became defense secretaries. They and others in high office often called on Mr. Carlucci, a self-described­ ­damage-repair specialist, to sort out turmoil and scandal in fractious federal power centers.

As No. 2 at the CIA in the late 1970s, he was widely credited with helping calm a spy agency in almost open revolt against its director, Adm. Stansfield Turner. A few years later, as national security adviser, Mr. Carlucci helped restore the National Security Council’s probity after the Iran-contra affair brought down its chief, Vice Adm. John Poindexter, and the head of its military-political office, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

In his various top Defense Department roles, Mr. Carlucci also was responsible for helping build up and then dramatically reduce the department’s budget, as times and White House policy warranted.

By his own admission, Mr. Carlucci was “not a great visionary” in the mold of Henry Kissinger. But he had a steely confidence that, along with impeccable connections, got jobs done and helped him advance.

Short and wiry — his father was once quoted as calling him “a tough little monkey” — he distinguished himself in 1960 as a Foreign Service officer in the strife-ridden Congo, where he was once stabbed in the back while helping rescue Americans from a mob.

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Moving up the Washington hierarchy during the first Nixon administration, he proved deft at forging comfortable compromises on thorny issues. As a top official of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, he managed to keep the anti-poverty agency thriving despite withering attacks by Republicans alleging fraud and waste.

When then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan threatened to refuse OEO grant money to fund a legal-services program for that state’s rural poor, Mr. Carlucci worked out a plan in which the governor accepted the money in exchange for a federal investigation into the allegations. It was a maneuver that was said to have greatly impressed a key Reagan ally — Weinberger, who soon came to Washington and brought Mr. Carlucci up the ladder with him as an indispensable deputy.

As much as he benefited from admiring patrons, Mr. Carlucci was also known at times for putting his views on the line before powerful Washington insiders.

In 1974, when Portuguese military officers overthrew the right-wing dictatorship in Lisbon, then-Secretary of State Kissinger fired the ambassador and sent Mr. Carlucci over to prevent Portugal from becoming the first country in Western Europe to turn communist.

Kissinger was ready to isolate Portugal inside NATO and cut off U.S. assistance programs, but Mr. Carlucci didn’t agree. He argued that the country could be saved for democracy because of its ties to the West and its strong Catholic Church at the local level.

“Whoever sold me Carlucci as a tough guy?” Kissinger was reported to have said.

To outmaneuver Kissinger was risky business. In a later oral-history interview, he recalled telling the secretary of state that “his statements were pushing Portugal into the arms of the communists. . . . I had some discussions with the White House as well, because I believed I worked for the president, not just the secretary of state.”

Kissinger agreed to let Mr. Carlucci handle the problem his way. His position was vindicated when communists were defeated in Portuguese elections and their domination of the government ended. Mr. Carlucci played his part in this by designing U.S. Agency for International Development programs in health and housing and working closely with the democratic political parties and their leaders.

“It turned out the electoral process worked,” he said. After three years in Lisbon, he decided, it was time to go — “I had become too much of an actor in the drama.”

'Where is Carlucci?'

Frank Charles Carlucci III was born Oct. 18, 1930, in Scranton, Pa., where his father was an insurance agent.

The younger Carlucci was only 5-foot-7 but was known as a dedicated athlete. He joined Rumsfeld on the wrestling team at Princeton, where he graduated in 1952 with a degree in international relations.

After two years in the Navy, he spent a year in a two-year MBA program at Harvard and also began an executive training program at the Jantzen swimsuit company before deciding that this, too, was not for him.

He had long been interested in foreign affairs, so in 1956 he joined the Foreign Service. He was sent to Congo in 1960, just at the cusp of its independence from Belgium. That November, he helped save from mob bloodlust a carload of Americans whose vehicle had struck and killed a Congolese bicyclist in the capital of Léopoldville.

Mr. Carlucci once said he remained with the driver “at least until the others could get away.” Only later on a bus home did he realize that he had knife wounds in his back. His bravery in that episode and others in Congo’s rebellious provinces became the stuff of Foreign Service legend and cemented his friendships with Cyrille Adoula, who became premier of Congo, and with Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

He returned to Washington in 1962 and took over the Congo desk at the State Department. Adoula soon arrived on an official visit and, at a White House lunch in his honor, looked around and asked, “Where is Carlucci?” The Congo desk officer was unknown to President John F. Kennedy, who turned to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and asked, “Who’s Carlucci?”

The secretary didn’t know, either, but Mr. Carlucci was soon tracked down and delivered to the table.

Passing through Washington in 1969 after working at the embassy in Brazil, Mr. Carlucci got together with Rumsfeld, who had just become head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and persuaded his former teammate to join him as deputy director for operations at the anti-poverty agency.

Over the next two years, Mr. Carlucci became the deputy to Weinberger, who led first the Office of Management and Budget and then the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Upon his return from Portugal in 1978, Mr. Carlucci accepted an assignment from President Jimmy Carter to serve as deputy CIA director. The head of the spy agency, Turner, had been expected to clean up shop after revelations at congressional hearings that the CIA was engaged in assassination plots, spying on Americans and other misdeeds.

Turner fired more than 200 experienced spies, some of them station chiefs in Eastern Europe, and was turning his resources and reliance to satellites. Mr. Carlucci took over the day-to-day operational control of the agency while Turner focused on coordinating the larger intelligence community. Mr. Carlucci’s willingness to use human operatives as well as satellites for intelligence gathering and covert action was credited with helping ease the tension.

Mr. Carlucci’s decision to work for a Democratic president was viewed as an act of betrayal by some hard-line Republicans. But when Reagan, who was now president, tapped Weinberger to run the Pentagon in 1981, the new defense secretary insisted on having Mr. Carlucci as his No. 2. They went on to launch what was then the largest military buildup in U.S. history — with a budget of $1.4 trillion over five years, which Mr. Carlucci directed.

At the time, he described “economies and efficiencies in defense” as “subsidiary issues,” given a growing Soviet threat. “We provide a service much like firemen and policemen,” he said of the Defense Department. “It’s wasteful when you don’t need it, but when you need it, every cent of it’s worth it.”

To Sears, then the NSC

Mr. Carlucci left the Defense Department in 1982 because his personal bank account “ran out of money,” as he put it. He was wooed by Sears, Roebuck & Co., where Rumsfeld was on the board, and accepted the presidency of a new export services firm called Sears World Trade, based in Washington. The job made him a wealthy man, but the company never turned a profit, and Sears folded it.

In 1986, he was lured back into government service amid scandal at the National Security Council, whose staff members had gone into the covert-action business. They were secretly selling arms and spare parts to embargoed Iran and, equally, secretly funneling the profits to the contra rebels fighting the government of Nicaragua. It was all illegal, and Poindexter and North were forced out.

In the search for a new national security adviser, Mr. Carlucci was the unanimous recommendation of Weinberger, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, CIA Director William Casey and Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

Assuming control at the NSC, Mr. Carlucci announced that he was going to get it back to its traditional role as “a staff arm” to coordinate policy formation, and not an action agency. During his year in the job, he fired 24 of the 59 professional staffers, eliminated North’s political-military section and appointed a full-time general counsel reporting directly to him.

At the NSC, Mr. Carlucci named as his deputy Colin L. Powell, who had been his top military assistant at the Pentagon. Powell succeeded him as national security adviser, beginning his own rise to the highest levels of Washington’s power structure.

Mr. Carlucci succeeded Weinberger as defense secretary in 1987 and over the next two years instituted painful budget cuts and base closings as the Cold War wound down and the country entered an economic slump. One hurdle he cleared was the noisy resignation of Navy Secretary Jim Webb, who accused him of bad faith and betrayal of an administration goal of building a 600-ship navy.

After retiring from public service in 1989, Mr. Carlucci joined the Carlyle Group and led the relatively new private-equity firm into defense industry investments that reaped sizable profits. He later became chairman and, in 2003, chairman emeritus. The group now manages about $200 billion in assets for more than 1,850 investors.

Mr. Carlucci’s first marriage, to Jean Anthony, ended in divorce. In 1976, he married Marcia McMillan Myers. In addition to his wife, of McLean, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Frank Carlucci IV of McLean and Karen Romano of Lewes, Del.; a daughter from his second marriage, Kristin Weed of Houston; a sister, Joan Kleinrock of Rockville, Md.; and six grandchildren.

If not a colorful public figure, Mr. Carlucci was a widely acknowledged master of good judgment and common sense in all manner of bureaucratic entanglements.

“Frank is an operator,” one government executive who observed Mr. Carlucci for decades once told The Washington Post. “He’s a first-class manager and doer. You can get oodles of brains to come to this town, who have all kinds of fancy, brilliant concepts, but they can’t get the damn thing done. The problem is getting it to happen. Frank makes it happen.”

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