Fellow-Cabinet members so disliked Alexander Haig, they let him go before a world-wide audience disseminating incorrect information on Presidential succession even though they knew he was wrong [above]. His "I'm in control" performance on March 30, 1981, instead made him look like a mad-man.
Alexander M. Haig Jr. - who once attempted to merge two of the three branches of the federal government by judicially interpreting the Constitution while serving in the executive branch - is still dead. The four-star general who served as a commanding White House Chief of Staff as the Nixon Administration crumbled and then later served as a confrontational Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan , died this past Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There is no truth to the rumor that he died after telling his surgeon during an operation that "I'm in charge."
Haig not only merged the judicial and executive branches but also merged the executive with the military. A political general, Haig's bids for the presidency quickly came undone although his ambition to be President never wavered. A brilliant man with a savvy wit, Haig knew his foibles and once joked to Reagan’s aide Lyn Nofziger that he knew that - no matter what else he did -the third paragraph of his obituary would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.
That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly interpreted the Constitution, declaring himself the Acting President. “The helm is right here,” he told stunned members of the Reagan Cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, Constitutionally, until the Vice President gets here.” His words were taped by Richard V. Allen, then the National Security Adviser. The only problem was - Haig was wrong. And his colleagues knew it. They so disliked Haig, however, that they said nothing when he said he wanted to address the media to "let them know I'm in charge."
In Haig's defense, his belief that the Secretary of State was third in line of succession was - at one time - true. The whole concept of Presidential succession has been changed three times in our history. For one thing, the Constitution says nothing about it beyond the Vice President's ascendancy in the event of the President up-and-dying. The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 stated that - in the event of the removal, resignation, or death of both the President and Vice President - the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was next in line of succession after the Vice President, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1886, following the very timely death of Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks in the previous year, a new Presidential Succession Act was adopted. This is the one Haig was thinking of on that March afternoon. The 1886 act replaced the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House on the list with the members of the Cabinet. The order of succession was determined by the order in which each cabinet department had been created - with the Secretary of State being first in line after the Vice President [as six former Secretaries of State had gone on to be elected President in their own right and as only one Congressional leader, Speaker of the House James K. Polk, had done so by 1886, the change was widely accepted].
Haig must have been napping, however, when the succession was changed a third time. Following World War II and the death of President Roosevelt, President Truman lobbied for a revision of the law, believing that an elected official - not a Presidential appointee - should be third in line behind the Vice President and President. This 1947 act remains in effect today and - obviously - was in effect on that March day 29 years ago. The law restored the Congressional officers to places directly after the Vice President, but switched their order from the 1792 Act, placing the Speaker of the House first and the President Pro Tempore second. The Cabinet officers then followed, again in the order in which their respective departments were created with one exception: the Secretary of Defense (a department created in 1947 following a merger of the Departments of War and Navy) was placed fifth in the line of succession, directly after the Secretary of the Treasury. This placed the Secretary of Defense in the place that had been held by the Secretary of War.
So, in fairness to Haig, had he been speaking in 1891 - and not 1981 - he would have been correct. Unfortunately, he wasn't. “There were three others ahead of Mr. Haig in the constitutional succession,” then-NSA head Allen wrote in 2001 - still angry about it 20 years after the fact. “But Mr. Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”
After informing Cabinet of his interpretation, Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” His colleagues let him go without correcting him. Haig raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions - including yours truly, just back from his first [in a long line of] blood tests. Haig - his knuckles whitening and his arms shaking - declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance, however, and instead looked like a crazed mad-man.
That image of Haig has largely overshadowed his brilliant national service in the preceding years. Seven years before that March day, in fact, Haig really had been in control: he was practically the Acting President during the final months of the Nixon Administration. Indeed, Haig kept the White House running as the distraught, despondent, and very drunk Commander-in-Chief was driven from power by the threat of impeachment in 1974. “He was the President toward the end,” William B. Saxbe, the United States Attorney General in 1974, was quoted as saying in Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency. “He held that office together.”
Henry A. Kissinger, his mentor and master in the Nixon White House, also said the nation owed Haig its gratitude for steering the ship of state through dangerous waters in the final days of the Nixon era. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together,” Kissinger wrote in the memoir Years of Upheaval.
Haig took pride in his cool handling of a Constitutional crisis without precedent, using it as a major argument in support of his confirmation to Secretary of State in 1981. “There were no tanks [in 1974],” he said during the hearing on his nomination. “There were not any sandbags outside the White House.”
Serving the Nixon White House from 1969 to 1974, Haig went from colonel to four-star general without holding a major battlefield command, an extraordinary rise with few if any precedents in American military history. Despite that - and the political arrows shot at Haig by opponents who argued he was largely an "imaginary" general - Haig really was a war hero. More on that later.
And anyway, the White House was its own battlefield in those years. Haig won his stars through his tireless service to President Nixon and Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Kissinger. Indeed, Nixon had privately suggested to the Reagan transition team that Haig would make a great Secretary of State. Upon his appointment, though, Reagan began to have doubts. It didn't help when Haig declared himself “the vicar of foreign policy”. In the Roman Catholic Church, to which Haig belonged, the Pope is the “vicar of Christ”. Reagan didn't like the religious alliteration.
Indeed, Haig soon alienated his affable Commander-in-Chief and the Vice President, George H. W. Bush. Bush's national security aide, Donald P. Gregg, described Haig as “a cobra among garter snakes.”
As a result, Haig served for only 17 months before Reagan uncharacteristically fired him in a one-page letter on June 24, 1982 [Reagan couldn't stand personal confrontation. When Haig refused to resign in a one-on-one meeting with Reagan, the President simply had the letter drafted rather than fire him right at the meeting].
Haig's months at the State Department were marked by a largely covert paramilitary campaign against Central American leftists, a heightening of nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union, and dismay among American allies about the lurching course of Reagan's new American foreign policy.
“His tenure as Secretary of State was very traumatic,” John M. Poindexter, later Reagan’s National Security Adviser, whined in the oral history Reagan: The Man and His Presidency. “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.” Considering Poindexter's entire career was traumatic for the rest of us, his choice of the word is ironic.
Haig said President-elect Reagan had assured him that he “would be the spokesman for the U.S. government.” But he came to believe — with reason — that the White House staff had banded together against him. He blamed in particular the troika of James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese III and Michael K. Deaver I. Considering the weasel-like nature of each of those cretins, Haig was a veritable saint.
While not saintly, Haig's pre-1981 career was worthy of respect. He graduated from West Point in 1947 and, as a young lieutenant, went to Japan to serve as an aide to Gen. Alonzo P. Fox, deputy chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme allied commander and American viceroy of the Far East.
Haig’s first taste of war was brutal. In the first months of the Korean War, he served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, chief of staff of the Far Eastern Command. Official Army histories depict General Almond as a terror to his underlings and as one of General MacArthur’s most uncompromising disciples. Following orders, General Almond sent thousands of American soldiers north toward the Chinese border in November 1950. They met a ferocious surprise counterattack from a far larger Chinese force. In response, General Almond and Lieutenant Haig flew to the forward outpost of an American task force on November 28, 1950, where the general pinned a medal on Haig's parka, told him the Chinese were only stragglers, and then flew off leaving Haig and 2,500 to do the fighting. Of that task force, some 1,000 were killed, wounded, captured or left to die. In all, within two weeks, American forces in Korea took 12,975 casualties, in one of the worst routs in American military history.
After the Korean War, Haig served at the Pentagon and eventually become a deputy special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. He served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 as a battalion and brigade commander of the First Infantry Division, and received the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1969, Haig - by then a colonel - became a military assistant on the staff of Kissinger’s National Security Council. He distinguished himself as the hardest worker in an ambitious and talented cohort. Soon he was a brigadier general and Kissinger’s deputy.
Vietnam consumed General Haig. He made 14 trips to Southeast Asia from 1970 to 1973. He later said that Kissinger “got snookered” in negotiations with the enemy, and that he would have chosen to be more forceful. “That is how Eisenhower settled Korea,” Haig said. “He told them he was going to nuke them. In Vietnam, we didn’t have to use nuclear weapons; all we had to do was to act like a nation.”
Then Watergate consumed the White House. In 1973, after a brief stint as the Army’s vice chief of staff, General Haig was summoned back as Chief of Staff, replacing the worm-like H. R. Haldeman, who - in a burst of good taste - was later went to prison.
As the new Chief of Staff, Haig had quite a first few weeks at the White House in the fall of 1973. First, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to taking bribes. The next man in line under the Constitution, House Speaker Carl Albert, was being treated for alcoholism. The President was an untreated drunk by this point. War broke out in the Middle East. Then Nixon wanted to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, rather than surrender his secret White House tapes. As a result, the Attorney General, Elliot L. Richardson, and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned in what is lovingly remembered as "The Saturday Night Massacre". Meanwhile, impeachment loomed.
What began with the arrest of several men breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington in June 1972 had poisoned Nixon's Presidency. Days after the break-in, the President and his closest aides had discussed how to cover up their role and how to obtain hush money for the burglars. The discussions, secretly taped by Nixon, were evidence of obstruction of justice. Haig was one of the first people, if not the very first person, to read transcripts of the tapes the President had withheld from the special prosecutor. “When I finished reading it,” he says in Nixon: An Oral History, “I knew that Nixon would never survive — no way.”
On August 1, 1974, Haig went to Vice President Gerald R. Ford and discussed the possibility of a pardon for the President. Nixon left office a week later; the pardon came the next month. Public outrage was deep. Haig soon departed, but only after doing a great service to his nation.
Haig was a colorful character, even beyond his "I'm in control" fiasco. He had - to put it mildly - a unique way with words. In a 1981 “On Language” column, William Safire of the New York Times, a veteran of the Nixon White House, called it “haigravation.” Nouns became verbs or adverbs: “I’ll have to caveat my response, Senator.” (Caveat is Latin for “let him beware.” In English, it means “warning.” In Haig’s lexicon, it meant to say something with a warning that it might or might not be so.) Haigspeak could be subtle: “There are nuance-al differences between Henry Kissinger and me on that.” It could be dramatic: “Some sinister force” had erased one of Nixon’s subpoenaed Watergate tapes, creating an 18 1/2- minute gap. Sometimes it was an emblem of the never-ending battle between politics and the English language: “careful caution,” “epistemologically-wise,” “saddle myself with a statistical fence.”
But Haig was no fool. While perhaps not as brilliant as he thought he was, he was an astute operator of governmental power. In addition to his malapropisms, Haig could also speak with clarity and conviction to the Presidents he served. He could also speak about them. Nixon would always be remembered for Watergate, Haig said, “because the event had such major historic consequences for the country: a fundamental discrediting of respect for the office; a new skepticism about politics in general, which every American feels.” Reagan, Haig said, would be remembered for having had “the good fortune of having been President when the Evil Empire began to unravel.” But, he went on, “to consider that standing tall in Grenada, or building Star Wars, brought the Russians to their knees is a distortion of historic reality. The internal contradictions of Marxism brought it to its knees.”
While his bitterness over Reagan's firing of him may explain his interpretation of the end of the Cold War, it was also based on serving in government for nearly 20 years. While not a terribly efficient Secretary of State - and an even worse Presidential candidate - Haig's service to his country was great. Without Haig, Watergate may have played out much, much differently - and far more dangerously.
For that alone, a grateful nation thanks you, Al. RIP.
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