The Ironic Career of Alexander Haig


Its funny how one sentence, spoken impetuously and off the cuff, can come to color an entire career. That is certainly the case of Al Haig, who died on Saturday after complications from a staph infection.

The four star general and former Secretary of State became a symbol of ‘o’er vaulting ambition’ when, in the wake of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, he declared. “As for now, I am in control, here in the White House.” Those twelve words cemented Haig’s reputation as a bumbling, over ambitious interloper, who was unsuited for high office.

But the characterization was unfortunate and far from the truth.  Haig was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in U.S. history, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart, among many other honors.  He was also an extremely tough, efficient and effective leader, as a solider, as a political aide and then as a political appointee.  After leaving the army, he worked for both Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, earning those notoriously imperious bosses’ admiration for his fearlessness and for getting things done. He became Richard Nixon’s final chief of staff after the removal of H.R. Haldeman, guiding Nixon’s decision to resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Haig emerged as one of the few respected hands untainted by Watergate and was widely credited with persuading Nixon to spare the nation a nasty and divisive battle over impeachment.

During his electoral campaign,  Ronald Reagan sought him out as a military adviser, recognizing his strengths as a strategist. Following the election, he felt confident enough to name him his first Secretary of State.

But Haig wasn’t cut out for the give and take of the office and soon found himself with more enemies than he could handle. He resigned in 1982 , after only eighteen months on the job. He went on to become a highly sought after speaker and wrote several books, while also joining the boards of several Fortune 500 companies.

But everything seemed to go back to that day in March, 1981 where he had been accused of usurping presidential authority. What is never well reported are the words which followed his first twelve on that day.

Here is the full quote from that time:

“ Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State in that order, and should the President decide he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and I am in close touch with him.

Haig got it wrong that day.  The Secretary of State is actually fourth in line to the presidency, after the Speaker of the House, in the event of the incapacitation of the president. But the fact that he understood that any position he held was temporary and that his own role was subservient to that of the Vice President, is a mark of his firm commitment to constitutional succession, not his determination to usurp power.  But I tend to accept Haig’s own understanding of the incident, repeated in a 60 Minutes Interview conducted in 2001:

 “ I wasn’t talking about transition. I was talking about the executive branch – who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not, “Who is in line should the President die?”

 It is a deep shame that this dedicated public servant, who served his country so well in so many capacities, should be remembered for an innocent gaffe, that anyone, in similar circumstances, could of made.

But I guess that’s the way of politics.

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