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Former defense secretary James Schlesinger dies

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FILE – This Aug. 24, 2004 file photo shows former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, chairman of the Detention Operations Review Panel speaking at the Pentagon. A Washington think tank confirms Schlesinger has died. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, File)

FILE – This Aug. 24, 2004 file photo shows former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, chairman of the Detention Operations Review Panel speaking at the Pentagon. A Washington think tank confirms Schlesinger has died. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — James R. Schlesinger, a hawkish and erudite Republican who straddled the partisan divide to serve in Cabinet-level posts under three presidents, has died, a Washington think tank said Thursday. He was 85.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Schlesinger was a trustee, confirmed his death.

The onetime University of Virginia economics professor built an impressive national-security resume as defense secretary for Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and was the nation’s first energy secretary under Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Earlier he was a top White House budget official, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and director of the Central Intelligence Agency — all under Nixon.

In later years, he served on a host of defense and energy-related task-forces and advisory committees and continued to push for more sophisticated nuclear weapons systems. He was a longtime member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Homeland Security Advisory Committee.

Schlesinger was “a remarkable public servant,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who sparred with him as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“He left an astounding mark on American security and energy policy,” CSIS said on its website. “After leaving government, Dr. Schlesinger continued to promote a stronger and more prosperous country through his work at many policy institutions, including CSIS.”

The Harvard-educated Schlesinger gained a reputation as a perceptive thinker on nuclear strategy, advocating a retreat from reliance on mutually assured destruction as a means of avoiding nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “Deterrence is not a substitute for defense,” he said.

Becoming defense secretary in 1973 at age 44, Schlesinger was well-liked among military leaders, consulting with them frequently and aggressively lobbying Congress for more money for the armed forces. His pro-interventionist foreign policy also brought him favor with the new-right coalition of the day. He worked to rebuild military morale and revamp nuclear strategy in the turbulent period after the Vietnam War era. He opposed amnesty for draft resisters.

But his bluntness and tenacity in military budget struggles made for often prickly relations with Congress and he clashed frequently with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. President Ford fired him in 1975 and replaced him with his White House chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld.

“Schlesinger has been extremely ruthless and irritating,” Kissinger confided to James Reston of The New York Times shortly thereafter. “I think the president just decided he had had enough.”

But Schlesinger wasn’t gone for long.

He was back in the senior ranks of government roughly two years later, serving first as Carter’s energy “czar” and then as the first secretary of the new Energy Department, created amid severe fuel shortages and soaring prices spawned by oil embargoes and tensions with Iran in the 1970s.

Schlesinger easily made the transition from national security posts to overseeing energy policy, seeing many similarities and supplying Carter with the phrase “moral equivalent of war” for describing the national energy emergency.

That gave him some grief. “The phrase became abused later on, was misunderstood,” Schlesinger said later. “The Wall Street Journal referred to it as MEOW and that caught on.”

The pipe-smoking, sardonic Schlesinger sometimes exasperated his congressional critics, who viewed his frequent and often-lengthy congressional testimony as lecturing. He often drew criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike as he labored on the sidelines for months in nudging along Carter’s multi-faceted energy program.

A House-Senate conference committee negotiating a natural gas pricing compromise proved particularly tedious to him. “I understand what hell is,” Schlesinger said then. “Hell is endless and eternal sessions of the natural-gas conference.”

But, with Schlesinger’s help, Carter finally got most of his big energy program through the Democratic-controlled Congress, including strict new conservation standards, a since-expired tax surcharge on “gas-guzzler” autos and gradual oil and natural gas price deregulation.

In 1979, Schlesinger was abruptly replaced by Carter as part of a broader Cabinet shakeup.

“I told Jim Schlesinger it was time for him to step down, since he had submitted his resignation on two previous occasions,” Carter wrote in his White House diary, which he published years later. “I offered him a major diplomatic post, but he said he couldn’t take seven children overseas. We parted company in a very friendly spirit.”

Carter eventually regretted his forced exodus of multiple Cabinet members, calling it “a mistake” on his part that damaged his reputation for competence and weakened the authority of those who remained.

Schlesinger was never one to mince words. He said he liked Carter personally, but felt he was “just not a natural leader.”

“He had a way of discerning things that needed to be done, and yet he was a poor leader in that he did not know the arts of keeping the public with him,” Schlesinger said in a 1984 interview with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center presidential oral history project.

At the Pentagon, Schlesinger strove to keep the United States from falling behind the Soviet Union in conventional and nuclear forces. He promoted a nuclear strategy that called for precision in hitting military targets without causing huge losses of civilian life and outlined the importance of maintaining forces capable of surviving and responding to nuclear attack.

Pentagon-watchers saw Schlesinger as the rare defense secretary who put a priority on long-range strategic thinking.

“Incisive, brilliant, thoughtful,” said Andrew Krepinevich, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But he said Schlesinger had “little patience for people who can’t keep up with him intellectually.”

While at the CIA in 1973, Schlesinger was angered to learn that the spy agency had

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