Alexander Haig passed away over the weekend at the age of 85. A military man, a war veteran, no less than a four-star general, a chief of staff to two Republicans presidents (Nixon and Ford), a secretary of state to a third Republican president (Ronald Reagan), and once widely (but wrongly) suspected as the “Deep Throat” Watergate figure who gave the dirty laundry to Woodward and Bernstein, Haig was often controversial, often egotistical, often mercurial, and always interesting and entertaining.
I never knew Al Haig, though I did interview him for books I wrote on Ronald Reagan and on Reagan’s closest adviser, Bill Clark, who had the thrill of serving as Haig’s deputy at the State Department in that critical first year of the Reagan administration. I learned plenty about Haig from others. What I grasped about Haig — from a policy perspective — was not the conventional wisdom among pundits and historians: though Haig was the prototypical tough-talking, take-no-prisoners military general, he more often assumed the role of dove in the early Reagan administration. He at times sided with the Western Europeans who refused to join Reagan, Cap Weinberger, Bill Clark (once Clark had left State for the National Security Council in January 1982), Ed Meese, and Bill Casey in turning the screws on the Soviets.
A case in point was Reagan’s remarkable strategy to detonate Soviet hard-currency earnings by blocking the construction of the Siberian gas pipeline. Haig took the side of the French. He was wrong on that one. Indeed, here was one of innumerable moments when Haig, upon learning that the Clark-Cap-Casey coterie had prevailed, yet again blew a gasket.
Specifically, Haig had been absent from the decisive meeting where Reagan gave the go-ahead to obstruct the Soviet pipeline. He was in New York, chatting with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. When he learned what had happened in his absence, Haig was fit to be tied. He believed that Bill Clark — again, head of the NSC at this point — had scheduled the meeting because Haig was out of town.
Clark had not, but Haig was, characteristically, still smoldering when he later arrived for a briefing session in the Situation Room. Clark was there, as was Secretary of Labor William Brock. Brock had just returned from Western Europe. During the session, Brock was debriefed on the Western European reaction to Reagan’s pipeline decision — which was hardly euphoric. Brock described being “lambasted, savaged” by the Western Europeans on the decision.
Already incensed, Haig was now purple with rage. Veins protruded from his neck and forehead. He blew up. He pointed at Clark and raised his voice, accusing Clark of sandbagging him, of waiting until he left for New York to call the meeting. “YOU did this!” snapped Haig at Clark.
It was the kind of behavior that would eventually prompt Reagan to accept Haig’s resignation. More than that, it was the kind behavior — so antithetical to a successful chief executive — that probably prevented Haig from rising to the next level; that is, from being elected president himself one day. General Haig lacked the cool-head needed for the job. When it came to the basic but utterly essential skill of dealing with people — a crucial intangible of the presidency — Haig simply didn’t seem to have the patience for the presidency, nor for the singular project of governing the globe; a much larger ambition which he seemed to think he alone could do.
A classic insight in this respect is provided by Richard Pipes, the terrific longtime Harvard Sovietologist who served on the Reagan NSC. Pipes recorded: “Although I have said that he liked everyone, I believe Reagan from the outset did not like Alexander Haig…. Haig’s aggressive bearing, his mocking expression, his superior airs visibly annoyed Reagan.” At NSC meetings, said Pipes, “Haig would roll his eyes to express scorn for the foreign policy pronouncements of various people around the table, as if imploring heaven to witness his suffering.”
Of course, this is not to say that no one liked Al Haig. Bill Clark, who liked everyone, especially liked the man. “He was very kind, very gracious,” said Clark of Haig. “I got along with him well.”
Clark was referring particularly to the year he and Haig spent together at the State Department. “We worked wonderfully together,” said Clark, remembering Haig as always smiling and always smoking a cigarette. “[We were] soon addressing each other, when alone, as ‘Uncle Al’ and ‘Uncle Bill.'”
Clark recalls his first meeting with Haig, which was extremely revealing of Haig’s complex personality. Like all of their subsequent meetings, it was cordial. And it began, as did so most introductions to Al Haig, with a bang rather than a whimper; it still makes Clark grin. “I’ll tell you what your job is,” the general informed an attentive Clark, keenly interested. “You, Bill, are going to run the building. I’m going to run the world.”
Says Clark today: “He was serious.”
He certainly was. Al Haig informed the wider world that he would be the Reagan administration’s “vicar” of foreign policy — or so he thought. It was a marriage that did not last two full years, with Haig departing the scene in June 1982, replaced by an infinitely milder George Shultz.
“No one tried to talk Al out of resigning,” a senior Reagan administration official told the Washington Post.
As a parting observation, I’ll end on a charitable note, which is not only in order at the time of anyone’s death, but especially given the most notable component of the Haig record — the one area where Haig is most vulnerable, and which, predictably, has led every obituary. It is another necessary clarification, if not correction, on the life of Al Haig, again courtesy of Bill Clark.
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.