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NEAL CONAN, host:

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger died today at the age of 88. He served in the administrations of presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon before his tenure as Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan, where he oversaw a massive rebuilding of military strength in this country and an enormous rise in defense spending, for which he was sometimes criticized.

Here he is at a 1982 news conference.

Mr. CASPAR WEINBERGER (Former Secretary of Defense): I don't believe we can cut more from our defense programs for the next years without risk to our national security. We are doing everything possible to ensure that the defense dollar is spent wisely.

CONAN: Caspar Weinberger was known as a strong advocate of the Star Wars missile defense program, and later, at the end of his time in government, for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Lou Cannon, Reagan biographer and former newspaperman, knew and covered Caspar Weinberger since his early days as a California assemblyman. And Lou Cannon joins us now from Stanford University. Nice to have you on the program, Lou.

Mr. LOU CANNON (Reagan Biographer, Former Newspaperman): Good to be with you.

CONAN: When did you first meet Cap Weinberger?

Mr. CANNON: Well it would be sometime in the early 1950s. He was elected assemblyman in 1952, I believe, and I don't remember the exact date, but it would have been somewhere in probably '54 or '55. And then later in that decade, I worked for another newspaper then, later I became a Sacramento correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News, and I saw him regularly.

CONAN: And, let me ask you, he was a man who was around for a very long time in prominent public positions. How did he change over those years?

Mr. CANNON: Well in some ways I think that the evolution of Caspar Weinberger, if you want to call it that, he would, replicated what happened in the country with the Republican Party. Mr. Weinberger, we called him Cap, everybody did, was a moderate to liberal Republican as a state legislator, and he became, he supported Nelson Rockefeller against Barry Goldwater, which kept him out of the Reagan cabinet for a time.

And as the years progressed, he became more conservative and he became a very trusted lieutenant and cabinet member for Ronald Reagan. And I think that Ronald Reagan completed the transformation of the Republican Party as a conservative party. So in a sense, you could say that the Weinberger of the 1950s compared to the Weinberger of the 1980s was very much what happened to the Republican Party, or most of it, during those years.

CONAN: We mentioned his role as Secretary of Defense during the big buildup after Ronald Reagan came into office, and his role in trying to spend the Soviet Union into the ground, which a lot of people think eventually paid off.

One of the things, though, he did in his time as Secretary of Defense was come to the aid of Britain and Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. He was a great Anglophile.

Mr. CANNON: Yes, he was. He really, you have to remember that these, Cap, like many others of the Reagan people from that era, was a member of what has been called the greatest generation. He fought in the South Pacific during World War II, he was in fairly heavy combat and he always thought of Britain as standing on the ramparts as they did when they were alone against the Nazis. He never forgot that.

He was a great student and reader of history. He particularly read Churchill, and he'd have these things from Churchill, you know, never, never, never give up, and so he really, he was an Anglophile, but more than that, I think, he tended to see the world in terms of the grand alliance against Hitler and fascism of World War II.

CONAN: We just have a few minutes with you left, Lou, a few seconds, rather, with you left. I, what, you wrote some things that were not always positive about him. He was bitterly criticized at the end of his career in the Iran-Contra affair. Throughout it, did he maintain that gentlemanliness for which he was known?

Mr. CANNON: Cap Weinberger was one of the great gentlemen I've ever known in my life. He returned, from the time I first covered him in the '60s until the end, he returned every phone call. He retuned it promptly, on deadline. He called me doctor for some reason. And he treated you the same after you'd written a story that scorched him as he did after a story that he came out looking well in. He never complained or attacked you. He had a kind of civility and the way he treated people in the press would be something that a lot of politicians on both sides could emulate today.

CONAN: Lou Cannon, good to talk with you.

Mr. CANNON: Thank you.

CONAN: Lou Cannon, Reagan biographer, former newspaper reporter. His book, PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME. With us today from Stanford University.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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