Alexander Haig, a longtime major military figure and advisor to three Presidents who had Presidential aspirations that never quite translated into popular support, is dead at 85.
Haig’s name was a major one for decades in the Unites States — and beyond: a General known inside and outside of the United States. A major adviser in the Nixon administration when Richard Nixon faced impeachment….Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan….Presidential aspirant.
But his military experience in the end seemed overshadowed by his role in defending Richard Nixon, a defense that the verdict of history has made questionable. Even so, his image was intact until March 30, 1981 when Ronald Reagan was shot and Haig mistaken told the press corps that he was in control in the White House. Here’s that moment:
Careers in entertainment and politics can be influenced by just a few seconds of sound bytes — and this was the one for Haig. For a while the phrase “doing his Alexander Haig imitation” was in vogue for a while — meaning someone who was a bit upset and seemingly out of control himself.
But Haig had an honorable career serving the military, his nation and several Presidents — an example to some of someone who might have been. Here’s a cross section of media and blog coverage:
—The Washington Post:
Retired Army Gen. Alexander Haig, who held influential positions in the United States military and in politics and who as White House chief of staff shepherded Richard M. Nixon toward peacefully resigning the presidency, died today at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications from an infection. He was 85.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter sent the four-star general to Europe as supreme commander of NATO. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state, resulting in a brief and stormy tenure in which he famously tried to assert command after the attempted assassination of the president. And Gen. Haig himself, a tall man with blue eyes who kept his chin-up military bearing long after he left the service, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
In a statement, President Obama said Gen. Haig “exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service.”
Gen. Haig, untainted by the botched break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, took over as chief of staff in May 1973 from H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, who would spend 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. When the public learned about the secret Oval Office taping system, which would eventually implicate Nixon in the coverup, Gen. Haig acknowledged later that he urged the president to destroy the tapes.
When Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Jaworski’s predecessor, pursued his investigation too aggressively for Nixon’s comfort, the president dispatched Gen. Haig in October 1973 to instruct acting Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. “Your commander in chief has given you an order,” Gen. Haig told him. Ruckelshaus refused, quitting instead in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Gen. Haig, while vigorously defending the president, realized the direness of the mounting evidence and arranged a series of meetings between Nixon, his lawyers and leading members of Congress to make his boss understand that their position had become untenable in the summer of 1974.
“I would have gladly stayed with him through the entire impeachment process,” Gen. Haig wrote in his 1992 memoir, “Inner Circles.”
Gen. Haig’s influence peaked in his late 40s during Nixon’s last 16 months in office, when brewing developments in the Watergate scandal damaged and increasingly distracted the president.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously told Gen. Haig to keep the country together while he held the world together during one of the greatest constitutional crises in the nation’s history.
Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and many others, called Gen. Haig the “37 1/2 president.”
Mr Haig was perhaps best known for his bungled response when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, erroneously telling reporters he was “in control”.
Mr Haig maintained he was simply trying to keep the country calm, but he was widely derided for apparently trying to overstep his authority.
The BBC also adds:
BBC defence correspondent Rob Watson says Mr Haig was the ultimate Cold War warrior.
A decorated hero in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, he rose to the rank of general before continuing the fight via the conservative politics of the Republican Party of the 1970s and 80s, our correspondent says.
In 1973, he was asked to take over as President Nixon’s chief of staff at a time when the administration was in serious trouble.
Mr Haig was widely credited with saving the presidency from complete collapse over Watergate, and persuading Nixon to resign.
He then stayed on as chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor.
After a brief return to the military as Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Mr Haig was back in Washington in 1981 as President Reagan’s hawkish secretary of state.
During that time, he courted controversy by suggesting the possible use of nuclear weapons as a warning to the Soviets.
“There are contingency plans in the Nato doctrine to fire a nuclear weapon for demonstrative purposes, to demonstrate to the other side that they are exceeding the limits of toleration in the conventional area,” he said.
Gen. Alexander Haig never officially became president, but his influence at key moments of post-Vietnam US history assured his reputation as a controversial but often effective power-broker who held the country’s reins twice – once by proxy, once by sheer will.
…The Philadelphia-born Haig, a Vietnam War hero, came off as both political pro and power-hungry at two key junctures: the Watergate scandal and the assassination attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan.
Known for “haigravations” such as “saddle myself with a statistical fence,” Haig correctly predicted that his decision, as secretary of state, to supersede constitutional succession after the shooting of Mr. Reagan to wrongly declare to the press, “I am in control here,” would become the third paragraph of his obituary.
His intercession in the waning months of the Richard Nixon presidency as chief of staff earned Haig higher plaudits. He is credited with keeping the White House afloat as Nixon’s despondency grew under the 1974 impeachment threat that drove him from office. “[Haig] was the president toward the end,” wrote William Saxbe, a Nixon biographer.
…Having tasted the presidency twice, the mercurial Haig made a run for the office in 1988, but came in last in Iowa before withdrawing from the New Hampshire primary. He called himself “the darkest of the dark horses” in the race.
Gen. Alexander Haig, 85, won’t be down to breakfast. I always liked the guy. Even when he was a figure of lefty fun, and I was your standard-issue college default lefty. Straightforward, said what was on his mind. Most famous for his “I am in control here” after Reagan was shot. Much mocked at the time and since…
….West Point grad served as a general’s aide in Korea and an infantry commander in Vietnam, then went on to serve three presidents before running unsuccessfully himself in 1988. But his brash approach got him into trouble repeatedly and was his political undoing.
A bellicose adviser to presidents, Haig famously suggested the use of nuclear weapons as a warning to the Soviet Union, causing some to call him the “ultimate Cold War warrior.”
Fairly or not, he will be remembered for his over-reaching remark after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, when, as secretary of state, he declared, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president.”
He sometimes came off as a taciturn, hard-nosed military man but he had a lighter side. During the run-up to one of his confirmation hearings in the 1980s, the late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, a political foe, presented him with a box of nails. Haig got the joke and laughed along with the senator.
It is a pity that he will be most remembered for this unfortunate sound bite, from March 30, 1981. It was an inaccurate assertion that the then-Secretary of State made to reporters in the White House briefing room, after gunman John Hinckley nearly assassinated the new President, Ronald Reagan. The comment revealed both an inaccurate understanding of the Constitution (“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State in that order.”) and Haig’s own thirst for power.
The great irony was that there had been a time, seven years before, when Haig really had been in control at the White House. At that point, the country didn’t know it. In retrospect, however, we should be glad that he was.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.