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Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger Dies

Caspar Weinberger, the former Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan, has died after a brief illness. He was 88.

Forbes magazine confirmed Weinberger's death on Tuesday, saying he died at a hospital in Bangor, Maine, surrounded by his wife, Jane, of 63 years, and two children. Weinberger served as publisher and chairman of Forbes and was a columnist there since 1988.

“Cap was a most remarkable man. He was one of the key architects in winning the Cold War. ... He had access to leaders around the world and was immensely knowledgeable about everything that went on in the world," said Forbes CEO and Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes said. We loved picking his brains. On a personal level, he was unfailingly decent and always thoughtful—a true gentleman. We will miss him dearly.”

"In all his years, this good man made many contributions to our nation. America is grateful for Caspar Weinberger’s lifetime of service," President Bush said in a late afternoon statement.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who worked under Weinberger at the Defense Department, said Tuesday he was saddened to learn of his passing.

"Cap Weinberger was an indefatigable fighter for peace through strength. He served his nation in war and peace in so many ways. For me, he will always be the leader, standing alongside President Ronald Reagan, who restored pride in the military, got the resources to make the all volunteer force the best in the world and rebuilt the American Armed Forces, helping to persuade the Soviet Union that it was time to end the Cold War," said Powell.

Weinberger was a longtime confidant of Reagan, having served nearly seven years as the 15th defense secretary. Reagan also appointed him to posts on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the National Economic Commission.

Weinberger's death comes almost simultaneously to the death of another longtime Reagan compatriot, Lyn Nofziger, who died Monday at age 81 from cancer.

Weinberger "was a giant of the Reagan administration, the architect of rebuilding America's defenses, along with the help of people like Lyn Nofziger," said Lt. Col. Ollie North, a close ally of Weinberger. He added that the two men "helped create Ronald Reagan's legacy."

"The fact that we are here today no longer worried about Soviet missiles raining down on us, about the expansion of the Soviet empire, about threats posed from Soviet proxies in this hemisphere is the direct result of what men like Weinberger and Nofziger accomplished in their close relationship with Ronald Reagan," North told FOXNews.com.

Weinberger was born in San Francisco, and admitted to the California Bar before being elected to the state Assembly in 1952, in which he was re-elected twice before unsuccessfully seeking the attorney general's spot. He served as chairman of the California Republican Party in 1962 and served Gov. Reagan as chairman of the Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy and later as as state director of finance.

Later in Washington, he also served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, director of the Office of Management and Budget and as secretary of health, education, and welfare under Richard Nixon. Between Nixon and Reagan's presidencies, Weinberger was vice president and general counsel of the Bechtel Group.

Weinberger was not widely experienced in defense when he became secretary of that department, but he had a reputation as an able administrator and cost cutter, a skill that earned him the nickname "Cap the Knife."

He was considered a champion of the strategic modernization of the military, a build-up that eventually forced the demise of Soviet Union. He also promoted better relations with China and Japan. Concerned about the quality of the all-volunteer military, he successfully put into place better compensation packages and other incentives to increase enlistments.

But his tenure at the Defense Department was not without turbulence. He opposed putting U.S. forces into Lebanon when that country was facing civil war. Nonetheless, troops were posted at the Beirut airport as part of a multinational force that hoped to tamp down the violence between Muslims and Christians. However, terrorists blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983, killing 241 Marines. In February 1984, U.S. troops left the Mideast country.

"They had no mission but to sit at the airport, which is just like sitting in a bull's-eye," Weinberger was quoted saying as part of a University of Virginia oral history project released January that documented the thoughts of Reagan administration officials.

"I was not persuasive enough to persuade the president that the Marines were there on an impossible mission," he said.

In 1985, antitank missiles and equipment were sent to Iran as part of a deal to use Tehran's influence to get the release of 37 hostages being held in Lebanon. The deal blew up when the arms sales were uncovered in November 1986. The sales paid for the Contras in Nicaragua, who were trying to unseat the Soviet-backed Sandinistas who took power in 1979 after driving out the U.S.-supported dictator there.

The whole affair was then named Iran/Contra and led to congressional hearings and several prosecutions. Weinberger said he opposed the arms sales and denied knowing about the funding for the Contras. Nonetheless, a special prosecutor charged with making false statements, but on the eve of his 1992 trial, then-President Bush pardoned him.

In November 1987, six years and 10 months after taking the post, Weinberger, worn from the Iran/Contra affair and upset about an arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, resigned from the Defense Department.

He went on to write several articles and books on national security policy.

FOXNews.com's Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.