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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Pete Wilson

  • Center for Security Policy:
  • Former Board Member
  • Former Governor of California

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Pete Wilson, the former governor of California and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, has been an important Republican Party figure for more than three decades, having also served as a U.S. senator, the mayor of San Diego, and a California state representative. Best known for his eight-year tenure as governor of California (1991-1999), during which he pushed for hardline immigration reforms such as Proposition 187, Wilson remained politically active after leaving public office. He served on two advisory boards during the George W. Bush presidency, including the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (DPB), an advisory group that provides policy advice to the Defense Department and which was chaired by Richard Perle at the time of Wilson's appointment. He also served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.1

Known for his business, energy, and education reforms while California governor, Wilson has been a strident supporter of the national security policies of Republican administrations since his time in the U.S. Senate (1983-1991), during which he served on the Armed Services Committee. While his fiscal conservatism in the Senate earned him the label "watchdog of the Treasury," he was also a staunch advocate for the early implementation of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, later known as Star Wars, which in some ways was a precursor to U.S. plans for a national missile defense.2

In October 2001, Wilson criticized the Clinton administration for not having moved fast enough to build a missile defense shield, which became a priority for the George W. Bush administration. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, Wilson said that missiles would be "the most certain form of delivery of weapons of mass destruction" and therefore needed to be defended against. He also criticized the decades-old assassination ban that was put in place by President Gerald Ford, following a congressional hearing on the issue led by then-Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Frank Church (D-ID). "The Church committee, Wilson said, 'undertook to sanitize American intelligence activity.' Wilson said this signaled terrorists that 'our first concern is not to dirty our hands,' when the signal should be that the United States will 'effectively retaliate against them and crush them.'"3

Soon after September 11, 2001, Wilson was appointed to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group that advises the president on the quality and role of the country's intelligence. With his appointment Wilson joined a long list of Bush political supporters and family friends including Chairman Brent Scowcroft; Robert Addison Day, a Bush fund-raiser and chairman of the money management firm TWC Group; Ray Lee Hunt, of the Texas Hunt Oil fortune; Alfred Lerner, chief executive of MBNA who with his wife donated $500,000 to the GOP; James Calhoun Langdon Jr., a Texas lawyer and another Bush fund-raiser; and David Jeremiah, a retired admiral who served on the DPB, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs board, and as consultant to several defense contractors.4

Wilson was appointed to a second Bush administration advisory board in 2001, the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. Wilson was among several members of the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution who joined the 28-member DPB after Richard Perle was appointed chair in early 2001. Defending the position that the United States should if necessary act alone in places like Iraq, Wilson in 2002 told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The most foolish thing in the world would be to give up some kind of strategic or tactical advantage to secure the nominal contribution of partners who won't contribute much and who seem, almost ironically, to have an unlimited capacity for temporizing."5

While Wilson's positions on U.S. security policy retain some influence, his enduring legacy is his stance on immigration. In the run-up to his second term as governor, Wilson championed Proposition 187, which would have denied undocumented immigrants access to public education and social services if courts hadn't overturned the voter-approved law. Despite the legal upset and backlash from California's Latino voters, anti-immigration politics became the keystone of Wilson's ill-fated 1996 presidential campaign.6 Wilson's positions bolstered the anti-immigrant movement but cost the governor politically. As co-chair of Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign, Wilson was widely perceived as a threat to Schwarzenegger's moderate image. The Los Angeles Times reported, "many Latinos are wary of Schwarzenegger's ties to the governor who pushed what some saw as a racist proposition."7

While the Republican Party under President Bush and his close advisor Karl Rove has sought to court the Hispanic voters, Wilson remains unrepentant about his position on immigration and openly critical of legislators who he says fear being labeled racist. "I think a great many Republicans have been intimidated, and I, frankly, am quite disappointed," Wilson said in a 2006 speech at the Hudson Institute.8 Wilson takes a nativist view, arguing that illegal immigration threatens U.S. security and culture. He is a strong proponent of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.9

Immigration is not the only issue for which Wilson is remembered; his 1996 energy deregulation policies have been criticized as largely responsible for the escalating electricity costs, blackouts, and energy crisis that the state faced after he left office.10

Despite his considerable differences with John McCain on immigration issues—McCain, like Bush, supports a path to citizenship for some unauthorized workers—Wilson nonetheless endorsed McCain for the 2008 presidential race after the candidate he first endorsed, Rudy Giuliani, lost the Republican primary.11

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1. See Hoover Institution, "Pete Wilson: Distinguished Visiting Fellow" (http://www.hoover.org/bios/pwilson.html); Federal Advisory Board Database, "Defense Policy Board Database," updated March 5, 2008, http://fido.gov/facadatabase/committeeslist.asp. 2. Hoover Institution, "Pete Wilson: Distinguished Visiting Fellow." 3. Philip J. LaVelle, "Wilson Speaks out for Missile Shield as Vital to Defense," San Diego Union Tribune, October 10, 2001, p. A7. 4. David Corn, "Who's on PFIAB—A Bush Secret … Or Not? UPDATED," The Nation, August 14, 2002. 5. Robert Collier, "Group at Hoover Helping to Steer Administration's drive toward Iraq," San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2002, p. A14. 6. Daniel Hernandez, "The Return of Wilson, Prop. 187," Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2003, p. B1 7. Daniel Hernandez, "The Return of Wilson, Prop. 187," Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2003, p. B1 8. Gebe Martinez, "Ex-California Governor Says GOP Timid on Immigration; Wilson Claims Lawmakers Fear Being Called Racist," Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2006, p. A6. 9. Remarks of Pete Wilson, "Illegal Immigration: Past, Present, and Future," Hudson Institute, June 12, 2006. 10. John Wildermuth, "Wilson Would Carry Plenty of Baggage in a Bid for Senate; Support for Prop. 187, Utility Deregulation Could Cost Him Votes," San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2003, p. A25 11. States News Service, "Former California Governor Pete Wilson Endorses John McCain for President," February 3, 2008; Michael Blood, "Former California Gov. Pete Wilson Endorses Republican Rudy Giuliani in Presidential Bid," Associated Press, September 27, 2007.

12. Hoover Institution, "Pete Wilson: Distinguished Visiting Fellow"; Bingham Consulting, "Pete Wilson," http://www.binghamconsulting.com/consulting/bio_wilson.html.

13. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, "Pete Wilson," http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000607.

14. See Bingham Consulting, "Pete Wilson;" Fleishman-Hillard, International Advisory Board, www.fleishman.com/client-solutions/international-advisory-board.html

15. Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, "Pete Wilson."

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Pete Wilson Résumé

    Affiliations 12

  • Hoover Institution: Distinguished Visiting Fellow
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation: Board Member
  • Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundations: Board Member
  • Pacific Council on International Policy: Chairman, Japan Task Force
  • Government Services 13

  • President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board: Member
  • Pentagon: Defense Policy Board, Former Member
  • State of California: Governor (1991-1999); Representative (1967-1971)
  • U.S. Senate: Senator, R-CA (1983-1991)
  • City of San Diego: Mayor (1971-1983)
  • U.S. Marine Corps: Marine (1955-1958)
  • Private Sector 14

  • Pacific Capital Group: Managing Director (2000-2002)
  • Bingham McCutchen: Of Counsel
  • Bingham Consulting Group: Principal
  • Fleishman-Hillard: International Advisory Board, Member
  • Education 15

  • Yale University: BA, 1956
  • University of California, Berkeley: JD, 1962
  • Additional Resources

    Chip Berlet, Mitra Rastegar, and Pam Chamberlain, "Nativism," Political Research Associates.


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