NPR logo Flashback Friday:  On This Day In 1995, Ex-Rep./Defense Sec'y Les Aspin Dies

Flashback Friday:  On This Day In 1995, Ex-Rep./Defense Sec'y Les Aspin Dies

May 21, 1995:

Aspin button

Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat who spent 22 years in Congress, rising to chair the Armed Services Committee, and who left the House to become President Clinton's first defense secretary, dies of a stroke.  He was 56 years old.

Aspin was a brilliant lawmaker with a keen understanding of military issues, but as secretary of defense he was considered a failure:  an undisciplined, sometimes abrasive, gaffe-prone Cabinet member who was a disaster as a manager.  Clinton forced his resignation in December 1993, less than a year in the job.

But he had his successes as well, especially after he engineered a coup against then-Armed Services chair Mel Price (D-IL) in 1985.  As chairman, Aspin helped rethink U.S. military planning in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he helped assemble the bipartisan House majority that supported President Bush in the successful Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Aspin was first elected to the House in 1970, running as a liberal opponent of the Vietnam War, and knocking off Republican incumbent Henry Schadeberg.  For many years he was seen as a self-promoting gadfly, but over the years he turned against his erstwhile allies on the left by calling for a stronger and better equipped defense policy.  For example, he strongly backed President Reagan's support for the Contras in Nicaragua, as well as the MX missile, two causes that angered liberals.

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