March 28, 2006

Former defense chief Weinberger dies at 88

By Bill Trott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Caspar Weinberger, who oversaw a
massive U.S. military buildup as Ronald Reagan's defense
secretary, died on Tuesday at age 88.

Weinberger, who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra
scandal during the Reagan administration, had been suffering
from pneumonia and high fever for about a week.

He died at 5 a.m. (1000 GMT) in the intensive-care unit of
Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, about 40 miles from his
home in Mount Desert, said his son, Caspar Weinberger Jr.
Weinberger's wife of 63 years, Jane, his son and daughter,
Arlin, were at his bedside when he died.

President George W. Bush said in a statement that his
fellow Republican was an "American statesman and a dedicated
public servant" who as defense secretary "worked to strengthen
our military and win the Cold War."

As head of the Pentagon, Weinberger was Reagan's zealous
Cold War ally, presiding over an unprecedented peacetime
military buildup costing more than $1 trillion.

He strongly opposed concessions to Moscow in arms control
negotiations and pushed hard for increased defense spending,
such as Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a program to
develop a land-and-space-based missile shield commonly known as
"Star Wars."

"He should be remembered as a world statesman, a great
American patriot," Caspar Weinberger Jr. said. "What he did
with Reagan really brought down the Soviet Union. They stuck to
their plan and simply outspent the Soviets despite all sorts of
doubts here."

Weinberger became caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal that
bedeviled the Reagan administration. He resigned as defense
secretary in 1987 and afterward was indicted on felony counts
of lying to the independent counsel investigating the
administration's program for selling missiles to Iran and
giving the proceeds to the right-wing Contra forces fighting
Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista government.


He was pardoned by the first President George Bush in 1992,
days before he was to go on trial.

In 1985 Weinberger had called the Iran missile plan
"absurd" but supported Reagan a year later after the president
decided to send missiles and spare parts to Tehran.

"He was someone who encouraged me throughout my career when
I was a young academic and a young member of government,"
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters. "He was a
wise man and a great public servant. He will be missed. His
advice was sought even in recent times."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Weinberger for
making "the United States armed forces stronger, our country
safer and the world more free."

Weinberger was closely involved in the U.S. policy of
funding and arming Muslim guerrillas fighting Soviet forces in
Afghanistan in the 1980s, some of whom later turned their wrath
on the West and helped set up militant groups like al Qaeda.

Despite his reputation as a big spender at the Pentagon,
Weinberger began his Washington career as a cost-cutting budget
director under President Richard Nixon.

But when he took the defense job under Reagan in January
1981, he soon erased that image and the nickname of "Cap the
Knife" that came with it. He persuaded the U.S. Congress to
spend more than $1 trillion on arms in Reagan's first term and
billions more after that.

A longtime member of Reagan's inner circle of California
friends, Weinberger was one of the president's strongest
supporters in the Cabinet.

"He was just a great American," Caspar Weinberger Jr. said.
"He was a respected world diplomat, a member of 'the greatest
generation,' as Tom Brokaw called it."

Weinberger also served as secretary of health, education
and welfare under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The younger Weinberger said his father, who was born in San
Francisco and served in the California legislature, was "first
and foremost a Californian" but had moved to Maine for the
benefit of his wife, a native of the state. The Weinbergers
first bought a summer home in Maine in the mid-1970s and had
lived there full-time for the past few years.

Weinberger was a Harvard-educated lawyer and served on Gen.
Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff during World War Two,
his family said. At the time of his death he was chairman of
Forbes Inc. and before that had been publisher of the magazine.

Last year he debuted as a thriller writer. "Chain of
Command," which Weinberger co-wrote with Peter Schweizer, is
the story of a staged presidential assassination and the
desperate efforts of a Secret Service agent to thwart the vice
president who takes the reins and declares martial law.

Weinberger's funeral will be held at Arlington National