Often controversial, egotistical, and mercurial, but always interesting and entertaining.
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Of course, I’m referring to the events of March 30, 1981. At 2:25 PM that afternoon, President Ronald Reagan was struck by a bullet as he exited the Washington Hilton after a speech. For decades, Haig’s subsequent reaction has been portrayed in the press as petulant and dictatorial. Bill Clark, however, as Haig’s deputy at State, was there to observe each and every Haig step. He retraced those steps for me a few years ago:
Clark was at the State Department when he got word that Reagan had been shot. He was with Secretary Haig, who said to him, “I’ll go over there,” meaning the White House, “and you man the ship here.” Haig steadily ordered: “Bill, stand by. We’ll have to get out a proper statement for the benefit of our allies and ‘non-friends,’ assuring them that all is well.”
Haig raced to the White House to the center of activity in the Situation Room. He and Clark remained in direct communication by secure phone.
The common wisdom is that Haig then over-asserted himself by trying to seize the reins of government. “I’m in charge!” he reportedly declared as he stomped into the Situation Room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Clark here interjects: He says it is unfair to characterize Haig’s infamous words as reflective of a desire to take over the presidency, to leapfrog the Constitutional process requiring Vice President Bush to fill the gap. Importantly, the vice president was not present at that moment, meaning that someone needed to take command, and right away. Rather, says Clark, Haig was merely seeking order in the Situation Room and wanted to quickly issue statements making it clear to the world that all was operating smoothly atop the world’s greatest power. This was, after all, a tense Cold War period, and one never knew how the Soviets might react.
“That place was in great confusion and the vice president was in the air,” says Clark. “Al reminded people that as the primary cabinet member he was going to take charge of the meeting, not of the White House. So some of his detractors I think overplayed the meaning of what he said…. What he said was correct — that he heads the national security interest, that he’s the primary cabinet member. So, he did take charge in attempting to get a statement written and in trying to calm the others who were present.”
Moreover, Al Haig knew what to do because of his difficult experiences in the tumultuous Nixon administration. “He had been through a lot in the Nixon years,” adds Clark. There had been low periods for Nixon during which Haig effectively served as president. So, on March 30, 1981, Haig knew what to do better than anyone in that room. “He was not trying to take over the government,” says Clark. “That is inaccurate.”
Establishing order was Al Haig’s charge that day. He did the right thing.
Overall, Clark summed up Al Haig nicely: “Haig would drive us nuts,” said Clark. “He always felt he could do a better job than Ronald Reagan. But I loved the guy anyway.”
Alexander Haig was far from perfect, but aren’t we all? He left the world a more interesting place, and one not as black-and-white as his critics suggest.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.
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H/T to National Review Online