WASHINGTON - Caspar W. Weinberger, who served in the Cabinets of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and was central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, died Tuesday at 88. Weinberger had been hospitalized for about a week with a high fever and pneumonia brought on by old age, according to his son, Caspar Weinberger Jr.
Weinberger's wife of 63 years, Jane, was by his side when he died, the son said.
"He gave everything to his country, to public office and to his family," Caspar Weinberger Jr. said.
As Richard Nixon's budget director, Weinberger was such a zealous economizer he earned the nickname "Cap the Knife" for his efforts to slash government spending, largely by cutting or curtailing many of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society social programs.
Later, he became the consummate Cold Warrior as Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense and presided over $2 trillion in military spending - the biggest peacetime increase in U.S. history.
"I was deeply disturbed to learn of the death of a great American and a dear friend," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Cap Weinberger was an indefatigable fighter for peace through strength. He served his nation in war and peace in so many ways."
Patrick Buchanan, an aide and speechwriter in the Nixon White House, called Weinberger "a good friend."
"I think he was just about one of the best Cabinet officers that I've known in a lifetime," Buchanan said.
Weinberger was a lifelong Republican. He began his political career in 1952 in the California Legislature, where he took on and cleaned up a corrupt state liquor commission.
Weinberger, who called himself a "fiscal Puritan" and believed that budgets should always be balanced, first demonstrated his budget-trimming talents in the late 1960s when he helped solve California's budget problems as then-Gov. Reagan's finance director.
His tireless pursuit of Reagan's fiscal policies drew the attention of the Nixon White House and in 1969 Weinberger was recruited to head the Federal Trade Commission, where as chairman he instituted several high-profile reforms. He then moved on to run the president's Office of Management and Budget in 1970.
He also served as Nixon's secretary of health, education and welfare before returning to San Francisco in 1975 as special counsel to the Bechtel Corp., the huge worldwide construction company.
Weinberger was recalled to public service from Bechtel by Reagan.
It was his post as defense secretary that lead to Weinberger's greatest challenge: federal felony charges stemming from his alleged role in the sale of weapons to Iran to finance secret, illegal aid to the Nicaragua Contras. The "arms-for-hostages" affair poisoned the closing years of Reagan's administration, permanently stained the reputations of the insiders involved and cast a cloud over President George H.W. Bush throughout his four-year administration.
In one of the first President Bush's final official acts after his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, he granted Christmas Eve pardons to Weinberger and five others accused in the scandal.
Weinberger, who was 75 at the time, had been scheduled to stand trial in less than two weeks on charges that he concealed thousands of pages of his handwritten notes from congressional investigators and prosecutors.
He'd earlier rejected independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's plea-bargain offer to testify against his longtime friends and colleagues - including Reagan - and plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
Weinberger had said he was innocent to all the charges and considered the indictment a political attack. Friends said he could have never turned on associates he'd known for decades.
After the pardon was announced, Walsh charged that "the Iran-Contra coverup, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed."
In 1989, Weinberger, a self-described "frustrated newspaperman," joined Forbes to become the magazine's fourth publisher. In 1993 he was named chairman of Forbes Inc., filling a position that had been vacant since the 1990 death of Malcolm S. Forbes. He endorsed Steve Forbes for president in 1996.
Weinberger occasionally spoke out on current affairs in recent years. In 1996, he criticized then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry for refusing to announce publicly that the United States would defend Taiwan if China fired missiles at the island.
"It is very serious business to give any slight encouragement to China to think that an attack would not be met," Weinberger said.
"Even though the Cold War and Gulf War have been won, all the world's threats are not gone," he told a Nebraska business group in 1999. "We're not hunting around for enemies, but there are potential threats to our desire to live in peace and freedom. Peace alone is not enough. Peace can even mean slavery sometimes. Peace and freedom is what we have to have."
Weinberger told the group that U.S. military strength does not mean being the policeman of the world, "but it does require that we have the capabilities that when these conflicts do break out in areas that do affect our national interest that they can be dealt with firmly, quickly and decisively."
Caspar Willard Weinberger was born Aug. 18, 1917, in San Francisco. His father was a lawyer who early on sparked young Weinberger's interest in politics and government. Even as an adolescent he used to enjoy reading the Congressional Record, and at his high school graduation delivered a speech on "the honorable profession of politics."
Weinberger was always an avid reader, whose tastes tended toward English history and the novels of Thackeray, Trollope and Scott. He also loved music, ballet and the theater.
While he enjoyed a reputation for toughness, friends described him as a mild-mannered and witty man who had an irreverent and often self-deprecating sense of humor.
As a young man, Weinberger went East for his education. At Harvard he edited the Harvard Crimson, won election to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude. He attended Harvard Law School where he received his degree in 1941.
With America's entry into World War II, Weinberger enlisted in the Army as a private, graduated from Officer Candidate School and was shipped to the Pacific. He served with the 41st Infantry Division, an outfit that saw heavy fighting against the Japanese.
He came out of the war a captain and returned to his home state to start a law practice and become active in politics.
Weinberger got married to Jane Dalton during the war. Besides his wife, he is survived by his son and a daughter, Arlin Weinberger.
No funeral arrangements were immediately announced.