[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/02/20/t1.art.gergen.haig.jpg caption="Haig, second from right, and other senior White House staffers meet after the attempt on Reagan's life. At left is David Gergen." width=300 height=169]
David Gergen | BIO
CNN Senior Political Analyst
It is odd how one slip off a high wire can define a life, when in fact someone deserves to be remembered - and celebrated - for far more. That is certainly true in the case of Alexander Meigs Haig, who died today after a long life of service to his country.
I was there when Haig’s “moment” occurred. It came on March 30, 1981 when John Hinckley fired a bullet that came within an inch of killing President Ronald Reagan. Al Haig was then Secretary of State and he, along with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others, came rushing to the Situation Room in the White House as the President was wheeled into surgery. I was among senior White House aides who gathered.
There in the Sit Room as we wondered whether Hinckley had co-conspirators and whether foreign nations might be involved, Haig and Weinberger argued whether America’s military forces should be placed on higher alert. Weinberger thought so, Haig thought not. They grew heated.
Amidst the confusion, our deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes, returned from the hospital and was besieged by questions from reporters. Soon the press zoned in on how the White House would operate with the President under anesthesia and whether we might go on higher alert. Larry, not yet plugged in to the arguments downstairs, started dancing gingerly in front of a world-wide television audience.
“We’ve got to get him off,” Haig insisted and he bolted out of the room. Dick Allen, the national security adviser, and I ran after him. As Haig ran down the hall and up the stairs to the press room, he began perspiring freely. I wondered whether a heart bypass operation in the recent past had left him more breathless than we were. He should have composed himself but in the rush, burst into the press room and seized the podium with what seemed like a thousand lights and cameras only increasing his perspiration.
Al meant to calm things down but his agitation and sweat did just the opposite. And so, I am afraid, did his answers. He answered the first questions flawlessly but when asked who was in charge, he fumbled:
“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state in that order, and should the President decide that he wants to transfer the helm, 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…”
Instead of reassuring the world that the U.S. government was under good control, his demeanor and words created a jarring impression that the White House was in the hands of someone out of control. It didn’t help that he had also mangled the Constitutional line of succession.
Haig paid dearly for that moment. That phrase, “I am in control here,” hung like an albatross, destroying whatever hopes he had to be elected president after Reagan. That was a cruel price – and underscored once again how easily a leader can fall off a high wire, especially during a crisis.
In Al’s case, it was particularly cruel because it offset some three decades of distinguished service – and especially one period when he almost single-handedly kept the country on a good keel. I had the good fortune of knowing him during that time, too.
He loved his years as a young man at West Point during the 1940s and then won combat decorations in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. As a young officer he was so widely respected for his talent and leadership that when assigned to a Pentagon tour, he was among those advising President Kennedy on foreign policy crises.
Henry Kissinger thought so highly of him that he recruited him to the Nixon White House to serve as his military aide. Nixon then became equally impressed and promoted Haig, by then a general, from two to four stars – a huge jump over others more senior. Haig was smart, tough, and saluted – qualities Nixon loved.
So, it wasn’t a total surprise that when Watergate began crashing around him and he had to fire his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, Nixon chose Haig to sit in the corner office of the West Wing.
At the time, I was in charge of White House speechwriting and research, so that I found myself reporting directly to Haig and seeing him frequently. It was then that I formed a life-long respect for him, because during the darkest of those dark days, when Nixon was at wits’ end, Haig picked up the reins and was indeed in charge. I found him to be a rock of stability, keeping the government working during a time of constitutional crisis, steadying the President and his team, and pushing toward a just resolution. Haig will now go to his grave with some of the secrets of what happened behind the scenes, but my impression is that once he understood the full extent of Nixon’s culpability, he began to engineer what was in the country’s best interest: the President’s resignation.
Six years later, when Reagan chose Haig to be his first Secretary of State, I continued to admire Haig and kept his autographed photo on my West Wing wall. It didn’t take long to see how unpopular he was among Reaganites. He had understood upon accepting the job that Reagan wanted him to be a powerful Secretary – “the vicar” of foreign policy as he called himself. Reagan’s White House team thought he was power hungry and fought back. Soon he was at war with what he saw as the “palace guard” and within a year and a half, packed his bags. That must have been the unhappiest period of his professional life.
And it was a sad time, too, because during those days, he didn’t seem like the old Al Haig. He always had a combustible personality, but his serious heart-bypass surgery just before entering the Reagan years seemed to change him. He was more volatile than ever, saw enemies when they weren’t there, and harbored grudges. His is not the only instance when I have seen a heart by-pass change a good man. And I will always believe that Al’s change had much to do with his “moment” before the microphones.
When President Clinton spoke at Richard Nixon’s funeral, he generously said how important it is to remember people for the totality of their lives, not for a single moment. And so, I believe, we should think of Al Haig’s life. He was always proud that he had fought for his country, advised seven presidents, and served as the nation’s foremost diplomat.
George Shultz, his successor at the State Department, captured my sentiments the best. “I think of him as a patriot’s patriot,” said Shultz. “No matter how you sliced him, he came out red, white and blue. He was always willing to serve.” As he goes to his final rest, Al Haig deserves a hearty salute.