Four-star general Alexander Haig, 85, the Reagan administration Secretary of State who claimed to be “in control” of the White House after Reagan was shot in 1981, died today in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. According to the AP, Haig succumbed to complications from an infection.
It was under Haig’s orders as White House Chief of Staff under Richard Nixon that the Saturday Night Massacre took place. Haig, who replaced HR Haldeman, ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, a special investigator investigating White House involvement in Watergate. Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out his orders. Solicitor General Robert Bork was named Acting Attorney General, and, unsuprisingly, agreed to fire Cox.
According to Woodward and Bernstein’s Final Days, once he decided that the situation was irreparable, was Haig who eventually convinced Nixon to resign. There was some suspicion at the time that Haig brokered a deal for Nixon’s pardon in return for his resignation.
General Haig was then named the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe by President Ford, and kept on in the job by President Carter. He moved back into the White House under Reagan as Secretary of State.
It was Haig’s brief tenure as Secretary of State which provided the moment he’s best remembered for. In the wake of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the Secretary of State, who had a reputation for being fond of power and a famously combative relationship with Vice President Bush, held a press conference in the White House briefing room.
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. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending 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 reassuring the rest of the world that there was a hand on the helm while the Vice President flew back from Texas to Washington, but his statement was popularly taken to mean that he, as Secretary of State, was third in line for the presidency (he decidedly wasn’t), and that the Vice President couldn’t take up the role when he was physically absent (he, of course, could).
Reagan, who was reportedly unhappy with Haig’s unrelieved hawkishness and his combative relationships with other cabinet members, accepted his resignation after 18 months. Haig later claimed that he hadn’t offered a resignation, and described the Reagan administration’s foreign policy as a rudderless “ghost ship.”
A brief flirtation with the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 ended before the New Hampshire primary with Haig endorsing Bob Dole against George H. W. Bush. His campaign was marked by his unrelenting attacks on eventual nominee Bush.
Haig leaves his wife, Patricia, three children, and eight grandchildren.