February 20th, 2010
11:59 PM ET

Remembering Al Haig

[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
AC360° Contributor
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.

Filed under: David Gergen • Raw Politics
soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. Dess Graves

    Thank you Mr. Gergen for again giving us a thoughtful account of one of our public servants, Mr. Al Haig. It is so easy to remember the mistakes of a person and lose sight of the value of their lives.

    It is alway worth ones time to listen to your thoughts and perspectives on our past and preseent times.

    February 21, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  2. C. Farrell, Houston, Tx

    We've still got people in the WH today, namely Boehner, who don't know The Constitution from The Bill of Rights.

    February 21, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  3. Mona Andres

    Thank you for your reflective and insightful comments. Without them, I would have been one of those who remembered General Haig for that "one moment," Your statements changed that and I am grateful. I will remember not to look at people for that one moment in their lives but by the totality of their life and actions.

    February 21, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  4. John Robertson

    Maybe it's because of recent and more common appearances of Volcker or even Kissinger in the media these days, but I had been thinking about Al Haig's contributions and impressions just the other day. Your writeup is sad yet compelling, allowing me to understand something of Haig that I could never have known. The brouhaha over his "I'm in charge" comment is put into better perspective than ever, something which I now try to afford politicians of all stripes at least one chance! Thanks Mr Gergen. Condolences to the family.

    February 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  5. George L. Harrington

    Thank you, Mr Gergen for your usual insightful and concise commentary, something more and more rare in this day of sound bytes and rock star reporters. My father is a classmate of General Haig, USMA '47,and the words " Duty, Honor, Country" , are always in the background of any endeavor these sung but mostly unsung heroes undertake. Indeeed, the motivation of these men is far above money, power and prestige, that we remain able to stand as a beacon of freedom to the world today and to be able to carp and criticize as we do is due to their many and sometimes ultimate sacrifices. My hat is off to all who served and continue to serve.

    February 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  6. Jo Ann

    I agree with Betty. When Mr. Gergen speaks, I listen, because we respect him so much because he shows respect for others. What a breath of fresh air he is with the extremes from both parties only making fun of the other. We need more commentators like Mr. Gergen. He is so "fair and balanced" in his opinions, not like others that claim it.

    February 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Paul W from Santa Clara

    The Showtime movie 'The Day Reagan was Shot' was a revelation. It brought home to me that most Presidential Cabinets are (left) winging-it day by day.

    In the midst of a crisis, the rarest commodity is what Shelby Foote called "four o'clock in the morning courage". Foote attributed that to US Grant, and all great Generals. It means that in the midst of sudden chaos, you take command of the moment. even if your commands are catastrophically wrong and cost lives. But at least someone is in charge. Al Haig understood that and ran into the Camera Lights ready to die prime-time. And that's pretty much what happened.

    The Theatre of War is very different than the absurd theatre of Domestic Politics. The great virtue in Politics is the ability to spin without getting dizzy. That's clearly where Alexander Haig didn't belong and did not have great moments. That's also why he never would've become President, and why Colin Powell & George Marshall did not run. And why movie actors like Ronald Reagan did, and thrive.

    I do not admire Ronald Reagan. Even before he entered the White House. But after knowing what went on off camera, I admire Al Haig.

    February 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  8. Dustin Blythe

    Thank you, Mr. Gergen, for helping to clear the air. Too many networks, CNN included, focused on that moment after the Reagan shooting, making Haig out to be little more than a footnote.

    I developed a newfound respect for Gen. Haig after reading Woodward and Bernstein's "The Final Days". His service at the end of the Nixon administration was nothing short of Herculean.

    Thanks again Mr. Gergen. Haig deserved a better epitaph.

    February 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  9. Lawrence

    I continue to take comfort in knowing that future historians will have David Gergen's calm intelligence and extensive first-hand knowledge of our era to draw upon. It's an invaluable but rare role.

    February 21, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  10. Karen E Vogan

    Excellent. Well said. I was very young when that unfortunatel moment in Haig's career occurred. It was the very first thing to pop into my head when I heard of his passing. Thanks to this commentary, I am now more aware of other things and appreciative of a patriot who deserves respect in his passing. Thank you.

    February 21, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  11. Jeff Frazier

    It is perfectly fine to honor Haig's service and patriotism; it is quite another to try and find his accomplishments, which were few and far between.

    An empty Republican suit.

    February 21, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Art Carl

    General Haig was a distinguished public servant in my view. He was above all a general. I always felt a bit nervous with him in politics. It was especially sad that he could not get along as Secretary of State under President Reagan. I also felt that his gaff in the press room ("I am in charge") was way over-played. On balance he was a fine public servant and deserves our appreciation and commendation.
    Art Carl

    February 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Phylis Falcone

    I agree that when David Gergen speaks out on an issue, I listen. I know he's a Republican because of his background but he always seems to see the facts not the politics. He's always reasonable. I was one of those who saw Sec Haig in that moment and I felt he seemed to be in a hurry to take the helm. This article puts things in perspective. Wish Mr. Gergen would run for office. I'm a lifelong moderate Democrat and I think we need more people to take politics out of running the government.

    February 21, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  14. RJ McHatton

    I am very sad about the loss of General Alexander Haig. I first connected with General Haig and his team when making my Korean War documentary "Ship of Miracles." About a year ago we were in talks with him about the possibility of doing a video interview with Alexander Haig, where he could tell his entire life story in his own words. He said "why would I want to do that?" We said that his family would probably really like to have it so they could learn about his life from his own perspective. General Haig was open to the idea and we were hoping to connect later this year to do the interview. But now it's too late. I think General Haig had a unique perspective on history. My heart goes out to his family.

    February 21, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  15. RJ McHatton

    I feel very sad about the loss of General Haig.

    February 21, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  16. Tom in Chicago

    Mr. Gergen - Living in a foreign country at the time, my family and I were able to watch this one time event with a different set of optics. Our family and the country we lived in at the time were actually quite pleased that someone stood up and took charge in a trying time. If we listen again to his words, all of them, he did a great service to our country and to the world. Americans forget that the world gets nervous when we are unstable. Everyone wants it to be ok - as an example, the same country was very unsettled when the helicopters crashed trying to rescue our people in Iran during the Cartner administration.

    Mr. Haig stated that he was in contact with the Vice President and was essentially holding the fort until the VP returned. If history wishes to view his actions from merely an American pov, it would miss out on the world's view of it which exemplifies the very best of America. In times of instability we don't stage coups; we attempt to follow process and yet we are still strong and resolute.

    Thank you, Mr. Gergen, for your thoughts. History should duly note that during this crisis a 4-star general that was against putting our forces on high alert and escalating the noise. That's an impressive show of control and leadership amid chaos.


    February 21, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  17. Jamey Worrell

    Well said...sad to see yet another icon of the Reagan era pass away...and sadder still to be reminded how years of faithful service to his country was tainted by a single slip of the tongue...RIP, Al Haig!

    February 21, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  18. Steve Peoria

    Thanks for your article. I'm tired of every article I see on Mr. Haig's passing almost totally focused on this one moment. He served his country well in various roles during his lifetime. It's amazing how the press created this illusion of the key contribution that Mr. Haig should be remembered for, he successfully contributed in so many other impacting ways!

    February 21, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  19. Jack Buechner

    One day while driving into DC on the GW Parkway there was a lincoln town car next to me. The traffic (as usual) was slogging along. I looked to my right and saw the passenger in the back was secretary Haig. He was reading the comics. I feel safer if a General and/or cabinet level official reads the comics first thing in the morning. That way your sense of self-importance begins in a lower octave. I bet it was Calvin and Hobbes (still publishing then) and not Beetle Bailey.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  20. Henry Schindler

    Thank you for your service, General Haig and God bless you. Bravo Mr. Gergen!!

    February 21, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  21. rosie readandpost

    THANK YOU mr. gergen!
    i can always rely on you to put events (people, places and things) into perspective!


    February 21, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  22. rosie readandpost

    THANK YOU mr. gernen!
    i can always rely on you to put events (people, places and things) into perspective!


    February 21, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  23. Jim Cason

    Don in Jax says it best. When General Haig uttered those now famous lines, I drew solace at that moment, knowing that a true leader was in charge during a confusing time. Thank you, General; Godspeed!

    February 21, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  24. Chuck Smith

    Having met Al Haig as a military leader when he wasThe Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in Grafenwohr Germany and following his career, I can tell you that he was a man who you needed to have in your hip pocket and use him when the country was in crisis and ask for his advise when it is needed. A brilliant Military mind that didn't fit in with the "Palace Guard".

    February 21, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  25. David De Vore

    I feel the same sentiments as the other comment contributors to this article. I too feel the Mr. Gergen is one of the few credible commentators on news TV. I respect his view and admire his presentation of any situations. He never tries to over talk or bully his opions upon other people and gives a intelligent impartial opinion of most situations and this article about Haig is no different. Thank you CNN and Mr. Gergen.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  26. James Madonna

    Well put. Thank you for this insightful and intellegent commentary.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  27. Mike McCue

    Thanks Mr. Gergen. This is exactly the story Gen. Haig told me when I worked for him as his NH Chief of Advance Coordination for his 1988 Presidential campaign. I have spent the last 20 years defending his actions against those that ridiculed him.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:18 am |
  28. Mark

    Sorry, but I vividly remember watching Haig declare he was in charge and the effect on myself and others was immediate. It had all the appearance of a grab for power. The fact that he could make such a monumental mistake in a crisis situation WAS a defining moment. While it should not negate the good the man may have done, it certainly was an insight into how he would perform under crisis. And the fact that the situation may have sealed his fate to never become president was probably a very good thing.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:13 am |
  29. Thomas McGrevey, Jr.

    Thank you Mr. Gergen. General Haig was my father's tactical officer when my father was a cadet at West Point and I got to know Al Haig briefly during his presidential bid in New Hampshire. I agree with others about Mr. Gergen's insights. Al Haig was a great patriot and I agree was miscast as a result of a single misstep in the midst of a well intended and needed effort at the time. I would add one thing to Mr. Gergen's thoughtful words about Al Haig – an outstanding sense of humor! Well done, General.

    February 21, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  30. Mark D. Camphouse

    My life-long admiration for Alexander Haig prompted me to launch a "Citizens for Haig" presidential draft effort in 1979 while he was still serving as NATO Supreme Allied Commander during the darkest years of a failed Carter presidency. While the effort gained some national attention, it became clear that 1980 was Ronald Reagan's year for the GOP nomination. Gen. Haig went on to serve a brief tenure as CEO of United Technologies and eventually Secretary of State, where he served with distinction. In retrospect, I'm not sure what kind of president he would have made, but he certainly possessed all of the right credentials and experience. Al Haig was a splendid citizen and a truly great patriot. Bravo David Gergen on your always deep, rich, accurate, and in this case very poignant writing.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  31. Jim in Georgia

    I served with Al Haig in 'Nam.
    No finer officer ever wore battel dress.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  32. Brian Caine

    I agree with all the sentiments stated. This country could use a man like David Gergen assisting in the background of this, and future administrations.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  33. muldoon in ohio

    Haig's biggest blunder wasn't his "being in charge" when Reagan was shot – it was his part in decision-making during the Viet Nam War that cost America billions and the lives of so many of our brothers and sons. This is what I will remember him for....as will many others like me who served during those terrible years.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  34. Tim Gibson

    Perhaps it was that slip, that the White House was in the hands of someone out of control remains as one of the biggest fault lines in our leadership of power. And like the circus act, regaining footing once lost on the tight rope is a lost cause and the once great circus is reduced to little more than entertainment at the expense of the American People.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  35. J. Simpson

    As a kid watching the events of the Reagan assignation attempt unfold on TV, I remember the "I am in control" statement. I also remember the reaction of one of the adults I was watching with that day. This "grown-up" exclaimed that the US had just suffered a coup. With all the fear and speculation on TV, who could really tell what was going on. And this was with only three networks. Can you imagine the insanity of today's news channels on both the right and left trying to deal with events like that. Sec'y Haig would have been dragged out of office in days after this statement, not sixteen months later.

    Mr. Gergen is correct in stating that a person should not be remembered for one moment, but it is equally true that many careers have been built on how a person handles himself in the face of such an event. In time, General Haig will be remembered by historians for more than one press conference.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  36. Norma Labno


    I can't thank you enough, Mr. Gergen, for writing this
    article, for us, about Alexander Haig!

    This article brings much insight into the life of Alexander
    Haig. He led a genuinely exemplary life, and I am grateful
    to better understand his life long service to the U.S. (Sometimes
    I don't believe enough of today's politicians serve w/the loyalty &
    absolute best interest of the country at heart – as did Alexander

    Thank you for this article and THE GIFT OF JOURNALISM AT
    ITS' FINEST on this Sun. morning! norma from nv

    February 21, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  37. Asoke Laha

    I fully agree with David Gergen's comments. Al Haig was a true patriot and excellent and competent soldier. His overall contribution to the country is extra-ordinary. I am confident that future historians treat him well with respect.

    February 21, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  38. David Carver

    I arrived in DC in 1975. George Washington professors there were not shy to speak the truth as they saw it. Al Haig literally saved America for us all. His moment as you call it, is a total media sham. As the man in the White House, he literally was in charge. Bush was in the air and Constitutional lines of the 25th Amendment were of no help at all with the Black Box unattended. Never forget, Hincklet is the son of George Bush`s best friend. If you can`t spell it I can: Treason.

    February 21, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  39. Patrick Humphrey

    I too have always appreciated your balanced and thoughtful perspective on political issues, Mr. Gergen. I remember with fondness the days of "Gergen and Shields" on what was then the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. I also appreciate your personal insight into the character and public service provided by Gen Haig, someone whom I have always thought of as a true patriot.

    February 21, 2010 at 8:37 am |
  40. Al Mead

    Alexander Haig's destiny is falling victim to our current predilection for reducing everything to a single sound bite. Mr Haig had a long record of great service to our nation. As a liberal, I may not have agreed with a lot of issues he believed in, but I would pick him any day over the current bunch of nutjobs who have hijacked the Republican Party.

    February 21, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  41. mehran

    Mr. Gergen,
    As always thanks for your commentary. I was not a fan of Al Haig, in all likelihood due to his "moment."
    But I think what you have written is fair, kind, true, balanced and justified. Keep up the good work. and May Al Haig's soul rest in peace.

    February 21, 2010 at 7:21 am |
  42. Don Anspaugh

    Thank you so much for thisperspective, Mr. Gergen.

    February 21, 2010 at 7:21 am |
  43. Rev. Jerry Stockman

    I have always and will always listen to and admire David Gergen. But in this analysis of Alexander Haig’s 'service' Gergen disappoints. He needs to address Haig's comments when Maryknoll nuns were tortured, raped and killed by the America backed Salvadoran Army. Haig and other 'right wingers' blamed the nuns for this atrocity. This, too, is Haig's legacy and the one I will remember.

    February 21, 2010 at 7:18 am |
  44. Betty Cunningham

    I continue to be impressed with Mr. Gergen, and his insight on a variety of issues. When he speaks on CNN, I find myself stopping whatever I'm doing to listen. This well-written piece of General Haig is another example of Mr. Gergen's experience and impartial insight.

    General Haig was a true patriot. Thanks, Mr. Gergen, for explaining his patriotism in such an elequent manner.

    February 21, 2010 at 7:09 am |
  45. DENNIS

    you guys are lucky to be in the US me am down in kenya where we have corrupt leaders and our nation is moving no where so rveryday pray and thank the good lord that you were born in search a beautiful country and also pray for kenyans.

    February 21, 2010 at 4:54 am |
  46. Don Jax

    As a younger man during the crises of the attempted assassination of Reagan and, later, the downfall of RM Nixon, I was frustrated over the fire Gen. Haig received for his "I'm in control...." remark. During those dark moments, it was comforting to know that someone of his ability and character had the presence of mind to assure us that things were not spiraling out of control. Like too many things in life, we'll never know how he would have fared as president.

    I doubt if he was the ranting maniac some would paint him to be. Instead, he was a rock amid the storm-tossed sea of political intrigue and incompetence. Some of us who sit in the quiet of our safe homes nurturing dreams of what could have been will take solace in knowing that he passed this way. Some of us regret that we never saw him take a bow at the end of a distinguished career.

    February 21, 2010 at 4:47 am |
  47. Jeffrey Piarowski

    I just hope The National Enquirer didn't do it agian. But, THEY just outed you Mr. Cooper. I just thought you shoud know. Personally I hope it's true, and you are adopting a child from Hati. I really admire you and what you stand for. So keep that up. But if isn't You should stop the rummors before it becomes a "wild fire"

    Thanks for your time

    February 20, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  48. Jim007

    Well said, Haig was a True Patroit who served his county well

    February 20, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  49. robertoen

    When I saw that General Haig had passed away, I thought what would Mr. Gergen have to say. Mr. Gergen continues to be one of a very few commentators who I believe are honest and fair in their assessments of both people and events. David Brooks is another. As a young child I remember seeing this television event where General Haig misspoke. Mr. Gergen is to be commended on his posture in expressing his thoughts in both a civil and thoughtful manner.

    February 20, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  50. Wanda McCarthy

    I am (still) a proud Democrate, really cant't say much for either party now. Never did, and still don't think much of the Reagon years, as Californis gov. or US President, didn't like his trickle down economics or his foreign polices. BUT I had watched Alenxader Haig through many years, and he scared the whats out of me when he said he was in charge, yes because of the way he looked and yes because he was not in line to take charge, but after the shock settled in and took a bunch of breaths, he was someone I knew would do right by our country. I knew he was a wise and informed person, he wasn't a figure head, he was a leader and had the worst happened and we had lost Reagon that day, I will always know that we would have been OK because whoever was leading us, he/she would have Mr Haig beside them giving them the best advise and truely doing the best for our country as a whole, no thought to the Republicains or the Democrate, only OUR country. It is a sad day for the U.S. we have lost a great soldier and Patriot. Our prayer and thoughts go out to his family and friends.

    February 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
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