Laird, defense secretary, dead

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Melvin Laird, a former Wisconsin congressman and U.S. defense secretary during years when President Nixon struggled to find a way to withdraw troops from an unpopular war in Vietnam, died Wednesday, his family said. He was 94.

His grandson, Raymond Dennis Large III, said Laird died in Florida.

Laird left a legacy that included a telephone call that eventually played a role in one of the biggest political stories of the century — the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from office.

Laird was Nixon’s counselor on domestic affairs in October 1973 when Nixon had to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in scandal. Laird called his good friend, Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford, to ask if he would be interested in replacing Agnew.

“Frankly, the question came like a bolt out of the blue,” Ford said in 1997, recalling his conversation with the “can-do conservative” from Wisconsin.

Ford accepted. About a year later, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and Ford became president. Ford pardoned Nixon, and two years later, Ford lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

“I thought Ford was the right person to bring the country together after the Watergate fiasco,” Laird once said, taking credit with Bryce Harlow for persuading Nixon to pick Ford.

Ford once praised Laird as a patriot before a partisan.

His grandson Large, who is the son of Alison Laird Large, called his grandfather “one of the lions of our republic.”

“He truly was someone that worked across party lines,” Large said. “He was a very dedicated Republican but he was able to see the human in everyone. His work speaks for itself.”

Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, is married to Laird’s niece Jessica. He said Laird remained engaged with public issues until the end of his life.

“Even at the end Jessica would get two, sometimes more, letters a week from him, handwritten letters. I think last week she had one discussing the election, public issues, his views of things.”

Nixon appointed Laird as the nation’s 10th defense secretary in 1969 and the first to come from Congress.