Ex-Reagan aide Haig dies

Alexander Haig, the four-star
general and aide to U.S.
presidents who declared himself “in control” at the White House after Ronald Reagan was shot, has died. He was 85.

He died about 1:30 a.m. Saturday at
Johns Hopkins Hospital in
Baltimore, hospital spokeswoman Maryalice Yakutchik said in a telephone
interview. The cause of death was complications associated with an infection,
the Associated Press said, citing the Haig family.

Haig straddled the worlds of
politics and the military during almost two decades in posts that included
supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His 18- month tenure as
Reagan’s first secretary of state, the pinnacle of his political career, was
marred by turf battles and by the “in control” comment he could never live
down.

He uttered it on March 30, 1981,
hours after John Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded Reagan outside a Washington hotel. As surgeons
worked to save Reagan’s life at a nearby hospital, and with Vice President George H.W. Bush in flight to Washington
from Texas,
Haig huddled with other top officials at the White House, then went before
reporters.

“Constitutionally, gentlemen,” he
told the press, “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, he will do so.” He went on, “as of now, I am in control here in the
White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with
him.”

Fourth in Line

In fact, under the rules of presidential
succession, Haig wasn’t in control. The secretary of state is fourth in line to
the presidency, behind the vice president, speaker of the House and president
pro tempore of the Senate.

His comment gave Haig a lasting
image as a power-grabber. “It was reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove,” Richard Darman, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in his
memoir. “Haig intended to calm the nation. He unnerved the world.”

Haig had “lost control” and
“written his own political epitaph,” Larry Speakes, Reagan’s spokesman,
recalled in his memoir. “From then on, other members of the Reagan team would
be viewing him with suspicion, and within 15 months their hazing would drive
him out of the White House.”

For his part, Haig long defended
his comment as merely “a statement of fact that I was the senior Cabinet
officer present.”

The ‘Vicar’

During his term as secretary of
state, Haig called himself the “vicar of American foreign policy” and reportedly
chafed when others — even Reagan — took steps without his approval. In one
instance, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III rebuked Haig for remarks on Central America that diverted attention from the administration’s
planned message about the economy.

“Indiscreet and volatile,
knowledgeable and arrogant, Haig was ever ready to take offense at slights real
and imagined,” Richard Reeves wrote in “President Reagan: The Triumph of
Imagination.”

In April 1981, while convalescing
from his gunshot wound, Reagan penned a handwritten note to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, extolling the importance of peace. Haig tried
without success to persuade Reagan to sharpen the letter’s tone. Haig’s tenure
was “doomed from that moment,” according to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

Reagan’s Limits

“Al really did not understand how
much Reagan intended to be his own president,” Cannon said in a 2008 interview.
“Reagan delegated a ton of stuff, arguably more than he should have, but he
considered the U.S.-Soviet relationship the most important thing on his plate,
and he was never about to delegate that.”

Haig resigned in June 1982 and
presented his side of the story in a 1984 book, “Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign
Policy.” The Reagan White House was “an administration of chums,” he
wrote, and his status as an outsider was a “handicap.”

He said he was unjustly blamed for
failing to forge a diplomatic solution to avert the Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K. He also denied longstanding
allegations that he gave Israel
a green light to invade Lebanon
in 1982.

Haig became a presidential
candidate himself in 1987, joining a Republican field that included Bush, the
sitting vice president. He dropped out on Feb. 12, 1988, four days before the
New Hampshire primary, and endorsed Senator Robert Dole, who went on to lose the nomination to Bush.

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