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In Control Here

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

[D. Gorton/The New York Times]

When I read on Saturday that Al Haig had died, I immediately thought of his famous line, uttered in the aftermath of the assassination attempt in 1981 on Ronald Reagan, that he was in control. The fact that as secretary of state he was fourth in line to succeed Reagan as president didn’t seem to get in the way of his assertion of power. I can’t think of Haig without thinking of that moment.

It turns out I’m not alone. Every obituary or remembrance that I saw led with this low point in his career. I especially enjoyed Tim Weiner’s clever lead-in to the incident in his NYT obituary. In case you missed it, here are the opening three paragraphs:

Alexander M. Haig Jr., the four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and a commanding White House chief of staff as the Nixon administration crumbled, died Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, according to a hospital spokesman. He was 85.

Mr. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan’s aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that “the third paragraph of his obit” would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.

That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. “The helm is right here,” he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” His words were taped by Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser.

As you see, Wiener had the good sense to fulfill Nofziger’s prophecy. The obituary continues:

His colleagues knew better. “There were three others ahead of Mr. Haig in the constitutional succession,” Mr. Allen wrote in 2001. “But Mr. Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”

Mr. Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” He raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions. His knuckles whitening, his arms shaking, Mr. Haig declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance.

Categories: History, Newspapers, Obituary
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