Al Haig, 1924-2010

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“As of now, I am in control here in the White House.”

It is a pity that he will be most remembered for this unfortunate sound bite, from March 30, 1981. It was an inaccurate assertion that the then-Secretary of State made to reporters in the White House briefing room, after gunman John Hinckley nearly assassinated the new President, Ronald Reagan. The comment revealed both a misreading of the Constitution (“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State in that order.”) and Haig’s own thirst for power.

The great irony was that there had been a time, seven years before, when Haig really had been in control at the White House. At that point, the country didn’t know it. In retrospect, however, we should be glad that he was.

As Tim Weiner noted in this obituary in the New York Times:

He was widely perceived as the acting president during the final months of the Nixon administration.

He kept the White House running as the distraught and despondent commander in chief was driven from power by the threat of impeachment in 1974. “He was the president toward the end,” William Saxbe, the United States attorney general in 1974, told the authors of “Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency,” (HarperCollins, 1994). “He held that office together.”

Henry Kissinger, his mentor and master in the Nixon White House, also said the nation owed Mr. Haig its gratitude for steering the ship of state through dangerous waters in the final days of the Nixon era. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in his memoir, “Years of Upheaval.”

He took pride in his cool handling of a constitutional crisis without precedent. “There were no tanks,” he said during his confirmation as secretary of state in 1981. “There were not any sandbags outside the White House.”