The Who2 Blog

Alexander Haig, Secretary of State Under Reagan, Dead at 85

Alexander Haig, the former general who was Secretary of State when Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, has died at age 85.

The Washington Post obituary says the cause was “complications from an infection.”

Haig graduated from West Point in 1947, did a tour in Vietnam 20 years later, served in the Richard Nixon White House and became chief of staff after the Watergate scandals wiped out many of Nixon’s old-time aides. Haig was chief of staff when Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974.

Haig became Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state in 1981. Two months after taking office, Haig caused a ruckus when he uttered the words “As of now, I am in control here in the White House” at a press conference during the chaos in the hours after Reagan was shot by John Hinckley.

I’ve always thought Haig got a bit of a raw deal in that controversy.  It gets played up as a power grab or a semi-coup attempt by Haig, and it was never really that.

Richard Allen’s notes on the day Reagan was shot — recounted in a fine 2001 piece in The Atlantic — give a good behind-the-scenes look at what Haig (and others) were saying at the time.  Haig was part of group discussions with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and others.  He didn’t have anyone shot or say “To heck with George Bush — I’m running this show!”

That said, Haig certainly blundered big-time at the press conference.  At the least he was dead wrong in his understanding of the U.S. Constitution.  Here’s the full exchange from the press conference:

REPORTER: Who is making the decisions for the government right now? Who is making the decisions?

HAIG: 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. 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. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.

Haig later claimed that he was trying to provide reassurance to the public and show that the government was functioning just fine.  Maybe so.  “I am in control here” is the part of that statement that always gets quoted, and it’s not a great sound bite.  But it’s his line about “Constitutionally, gentlemen” that’s really the damning one.

In truth, of course, the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate come after the vice president in the line of succession. The secretary of state is fourth.

Still, I cut Haig slack. You can’t expect an old general not to assert authority in a situation like that. And in the end, the system worked: Vice President Bush made it back to Washington and nobody disputed that he was next in line.  Coups aren’t so far-fetched in this world, so it’s actually saying a lot to note that the system worked.

The incident tarnished Haig’s image, but didn’t knock him out of the public arena. He ran for president in 1988, losing to… Vice President George Bush.

Good luck to you, Mr. Haig, wherever you are.

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