WASHINGTON — President Reagan gave Caspar W. Weinberger a lavish farewell today, calling him "the finest secretary of defense in the history of our nation" and promptly named national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci to replace him.
Reagan also promoted Army Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, the No. 2 man on the National Security Council staff, to succeed Carlucci, and said that under his direction, "the team will remain intact." Even before his elevation, Powell was the highest-ranking black on Reagan's staff.
Weinberger's resignation becomes effective upon the Senate confirmation of Carlucci, who took over the National Security Council last December amid the revelations of the NSC's profound involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said no difficulty is anticipated in getting Carlucci, 57, confirmed.
Reagan heaped praise on "Cap" for his "courage, constancy, loyalty, together with uncommon brilliance, decisiveness and determination."
Weinberger, 70, who served nearly seven years in the Cabinet, told Reagan in his resignation letter that he was leaving "because of personal family health problems with which you are familiar."
Weinberger apparently referred to the recent bout with cancer and arthritis suffered by his wife, Jane. She sat in the front row in the Rose Garden for her husband's departure ceremony and before the program chastised reporters: "The stories you've been reporting are untrue."
Wife Not Happy He's Leaving
Asked if she was happy her husband was resigning, she said: "Not particularly."
Reading from his letter, Weinberger said, "With profound regret but with unbounded admiration for all that you have accomplished for the country, I ask that you relieve me of the responsibilities of this great office that you entrusted to me nearly seven years ago."
Weinberger's departure is the second change in Reagan's Cabinet this week, following Tuesday's nomination of Ann Dore McLaughlin as labor secretary.
Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. is the lone original Cabinet official in the Administration that took office in 1981.
Reagan said Carlucci, who was No. 2 at the Pentagon under Weinberger and at the CIA under William J. Casey, is "the best qualified man in America to carry on Cap's work."
'Hard Act to Follow'
Of his new job, Carlucci said in brief remarks: "Large shoes, hard act to follow; however you want to describe it, it's a big job."
Powell, also once an aide to Weinberger, told Reagan: "I look forward to playing my part in aggressively moving forward your national security agenda over the next 14 months."
The last of the Administration's national security hard-liners, Weinberger fought incessantly for more defense spending within Administration councils and on Capitol Hill, losing more often than he won but nevertheless overseeing the largest military buildup in American history in terms of money spent.
Defense spending jumped from $181 billion in 1982 to $274 billion in the 1987 fiscal year.
Weinberger has opposed most of the superpower nuclear arms negotiations and leaves slightly more than a month before the Dec. 7 summit in Washington between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
At his final Pentagon press conference, Weinberger warned against erosion of the military buildup in the current redoubled efforts to cut the budget deficit.