Contrary to what has been widely reported and thought, the late Alexander Haig made precisely the right move in asserting his authority after the attempted assassination against President Reagan on March 30, 1981, according to a former national security official.
The four-star army general who served as secretary of state under President Reagan and as a chief of staff to President Nixon died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore last Saturday. Although Haig was widely viewed as being overly acerbic and often confrontational with other White House officials, the historical record is in need of clarification where the assassination attempt is concerned, Paul Kengor, a Reagan biographer, has learned.
Various obituaries claim that Haig had attempted to gain control of the presidency and disregarded the proper constitutional chain of command. But William Clark, a close Reagan advisor, says that Haig actually acted properly and helped to restore order at a very tense moment.
Clark had served as Haig's deputy in the U.S. State Department before moving over to the National Security Council (NSC). Unlike many in the White House, Clark had a congenial relationship with Reagan's first secretary of state.
Kengor, a political science professor with Grove City College, is the author of a recent biographer on Clark entitled: "The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand." Clark was a close confident to Reagan reaching back to the former president's time as governor of California. Kengor followed up with him shortly after Haig's death and discussed the assassination attempt.
"Clark said Haig was exactly right and acted the right way in a moment of confusion," Kengor said. "The vice-president was in the air at the time and Haig was the ranking cabinet member who indeed was in charge and it was important for him to establish stability at this time. You also have to remember that this was the height of the Cold War and Haig was rightly concerned about how hostile powers might react."
This assessment from Clark stands in stark contrast to how The New York Times described Haig's response in an obituary that includes a fair amount of editorial commentary.
"Mr. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan's aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that "the third paragraph of his obit" would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.
That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. `The helm is right here,' he told 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.
His colleagues knew better..."
Kengor has a very detailed piece about Clark's relationship with Haig for The American Spectator that includes key facts at odds with what The New York Times and others have reported.
It is also worth noting that Haig was secretary of state during the apex of the Reagan military buildup. Anyone serving in this slot at the time would find that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was more strongly positioned in relation to administration priorities. There is a long history of tension between the State Department and the Pentagon that was exacerbated during Haig's tenure. In reality, he was somewhat of a dove who favored diplomatic efforts that became more ascendent during Reagan's second term.
Just as history finally caught up with Reagan's achievements, thanks to Clark there is now an opening to properly credit a courageous, patriotic figure who was more adept at advancing diplomacy in foreign circles than he was in securing his own interests.
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