Sunday, February 21, 2010

Al Haig

Al Haig on March 30, 1981: "I am in control here."

I was in college the day Ronald Reagan was shot.

CNN was still quite new, and it had been nearly 20 years since the Kennedy assassination, but I learned a truism about broadcasting that day — when the president gets shot, every broadcasting outlet in the country will have someone on hand to report on it.

That isn't as self–evident as you might think. We have only had one successful presidential assassination since TV came on the scene so the ground rules are still emerging. Reagan survived his assassination attempt, and the two "attempts" on Gerald Ford's life are hardly worth mentioning, but, from that (thankfully) limited number of experiences, some things are clear, and the pervasive presence of the media makes me think of what Willie Sutton said about banks. That's where the money is.

I hope this country never has to deal with a presidential assassination again, but if it does, I firmly believe TV Land and the Game Show Channel will send correspondents — even if they're only temps.

Anyway, I don't remember which network I watched the day Reagan was shot. It didn't seem to matter. Regular programming had been interrupted on all of them.

But the thing I still remember to this day is Al Haig seizing the lectern and declaring, "I am in control here."

I was watching with some of my buddies, and I remember how we all looked at each other in amazement. The secretary of state had just elbowed his way past the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore on the official presidential succession list in a single sentence.

Mind you, my friends and I were hardly Reagan supporters. So, in hindsight, it probably isn't surprising that, during what was probably, for many, a time that was made anxious by the uncertainty surrounding the president's condition, we were focused on what we saw as a power grab by Alexander Haig.

Turned out, though, a lot of people got that impression.

I don't mind telling you, I found Haig to be a scary person, even scarier than I found Reagan to be. I didn't like Reagan's political philosophy, but at least he was somewhat amiable. Haig just came across as mean, in my opinion.

Of course, anyone who served as chief of staff in the final months of the Nixon presidency was bound to look somewhat menacing. Probably a by–product of keeping your back to every wall in every room in the West Wing while watching for sudden movements in front of you.

It's always possible, I guess, that those were qualities he acquired while he was on MacArthur's staff in Korea or being cited for valor in Vietnam. If so, they came in handy in the Nixon White House, when Haig reportedly kept the ship of state afloat behind the scenes while gently steering Nixon in the direction of resignation. If that is true, the nation probably owes Haig a debt of gratitude for sparing it an unprecedented crisis.

I guess he stayed on after Nixon's resignation out of some sense of loyalty to the nation and/or the presidency. But he left after Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon unleashed a firestorm of criticism, and Haig was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld — yes, THAT Donald Rumsfeld.

(I still don't know whether to blame Ford or Haig for that one.)

Actually, it's been kind of a long time since I gave Haig much thought. He resigned as secretary of state in 1982 and made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. I've heard that he did some TV work in the years since (well, natch, can anyone imagine an emcee who would be cuddlier than Alexander Haig?), but I had mostly forgotten about him until I heard this weekend that he had died at the age of 85.

Apparently, with his military background, he will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I don't mean to be flippant about Haig's death, but talk of his death and funeral reminds me of a line from Mark Twain.

I forget the context. But it was indisputably Mark Twain.

"I did not attend his funeral," said (or wrote) Twain, "but I wrote a nice letter saying I approved of it."

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