Al Haig, the long goodbye
Looking back at the life and career of a backstage political player
Al Haig, the long goodbye
We're detouring down memory lane today. Alexander Haig died Saturday morning at the age of 85, and if you haven't heard of this guy, here's your chance. He's worth your time. A four-star general and masterful backstage operator, Haig was a top political player during Watergate and the early Reagan years. The shorthand on Haig is that he wiretapped people for Richard Nixon, and declared "I'm in control" after Reagan was shot - but his story is really an up-from-the-bootstraps American story. Richard Nixon once lauded him as "the meanest, toughest, most ambitious son of a bitch I ever knew" - which should tell you plenty, coming from Nixon.
I profiled Haig for an Inquirer Sunday Magazine story that ran on Jan. 3, 1988. At the time, he was preparing an ill-fated run for the '88 GOP presidential nomination. Over a number of weeks, I interviewed his sister, brother, and daughter; his West Point and Army buddies; various friends and rivals who had worked with him in the national security bureaucracy; and a nun who taught him as a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs. Most importantly, I met with Haig twice; each session ran for two hours. He was tempestuous, charming, funny, frank, and defiant. I wanted readers to see the complicated human being beneath.
So here's my long goodbye to Haig, from 1988:
Behold the sight of Al Haig laughing. It starts way back in his throat, where it stays for a long moment before it moves like rolling thunder past those big square teeth and explodes in midair as he pounds his knee with a palm, his West Point ring bulging on a knuckle, his "A.M. Haig" I.D. bracelet rippling on a wrist. The guy in the monogrammed threads is cutting loose. One second he's like a coiled spring, and now he's undulating like one of those slithering Slinky toys.
All this, because Alexander M. Haig Jr. - four-star general and erstwhile foreign policy "vicar," canny bureaucrat and '88 presidential hopeful - was raving about his favorite TV show, Saturday Night Live. This is not a misprint.
"It's the first thing I switch on. They had this new fella on recently (Robin Williams) who was imitating Reagan. He was so close to Reagan that it was un-buh-leeeve-uh-bul. The White House staff comes in, and says, 'Ah, Mr. President, we've decided to simplify your press conferences, we're gonna put an earplug in and tell ya what to say on every answer.' And then...hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhHUH-HUH-HUH...the police keep breaking in on the frequency, so now Reagan's telling the press '10-4! 10-4! Robbery near the doughnut shop!' Oh, it was fan-(laughter)-tas-(more laughter)-tic. "
Tell him a sick joke, and he'll laugh just as hard. He wants people to know that he's full of fun, that Al Haig, Regular Guy, is no crazed power junkie, which is how he looked to millions when, as secretary of state, he seized the podium after Reagan was shot and announced to the world: "I'm in control." These days, he roams around Iowa saying things like, "Don't be vague, vote Haig." Actually, the Haig humor isn't new; it has just gone public. In his long years as a backroom courtier, where he honed his gifts for guile and intrigue, he was one of the biggest cutups around.
Even the men he wiretapped thought so.
Chapter I: Tougher, Gutsier, Better
At 63, the new Haig has the grin of a rogue. His hair has the no-muss look of Cary Grant, and he can zap you with the blazing blue eyes that once wowed the nuns in his Main Line grade school. He has fattened the family coffers since his Cabinet debacle, earning millions as owner of a Washington consulting firm. He sports cuff links shaped in the logo of a military contractor, and displays a foot-long model of an MX missile for his visitors. But he is now in his fifth year of exile from "the vortex," which is Haigspeak for where the action is, and it's clear the vicar is itching to top off his resume with his first elective office.
From his lowly station in the polls, he looks down on all those men above him. Who, he argues, is tougher, gutsier, better? Who else worked seven days a week for Henry Kissinger? Who else learned there was "no free lunch" in the midst of the Great Depression? Who else was tough enough to brave the humiliation of hazings at West Point?
"Who else has done anything?" huffs Haig, for whom self-confidence has never been a problem. "Who has really done anything? Who has run an organization? Huh?"
Haig has no political base, scant campaign funds, and few allies. He talks in a language unique unto itself (Haigspeak), which former National Security Council colleague Roger Morris characterizes as "stilted and awkward...the wandering syntax of a man whose college English was cut short."
And few candidates inspire such polarization. Haig shrugs it off. He spent years in the bowels of the Washington bureaucracy, starting in the JFK era, taking guff and throwing some elbows of his own. He saw a lot in that tough town, and he survived. "A lot of people just go around getting their ticket punched," he says, "but if you want to make a difference, then you're inevitably going to be controversial."
"There's no monkey business in his past," says H. Perry Gainey, his West Point roommate in 1945 and his friend ever since. "There's no excesses, and no pot-smoking." Yet Lucian Truscott 4th, who ran afoul of Haig as a cadet in 1968, when Haig was West Point deputy commandant, now says, "He thinks he's the sun, and everything else is the moon and planets. That kind of thinking permeates his career. He'll start internecine warfare with anyone who raises his head above the foxhole."
In all of this, there are clues to understanding how the fatherless boy from Bala Cynwyd came so far - and how he might behave as president - but a recent offhand comment from Haig says as much. He spent a month last summer at a California tennis camp and played a lot with Clint Eastwood. "Let me tell you something about Clint," he said not long after, using a stage whisper, as if to impart some hot gossip (an old habit from his Kissinger days). "He's a little spastic on the court. But you know what I like about him? He really tries. Helluva thing. He really gets it in his mind to try to do better."
Clint really tries....It's vintage vicar. "I just happen to believe," he says, in Haigspeak, "that a man is what energy he applies to what he does."
A former White House colleague calls Haig "one of the most driven people I've ever seen in my life, to the point of being scary." He was the ultimate overachiever, kingpin of the paper flow, the soldier who won not on the battlefield, where victories were elusive in the postwar era, but in the backrooms of power - all of this before he ever gained fame as Nixon's chief of staff in 1973. It is in those distant years that the essence of Al Haig lies buried, in the memories of those who knew him when.
Chapter II: Fatherless in Bala Cynwyd
Frank Haig was four years old when big brother Al told him there was no Santa Claus.
They were living in the family house in Bala Cynwyd. Al, who was 8 at the time, insisted that their parents were behind it all. Frank refused to believe this, so Al told him, "I can prove it to you. On Christmas Eve, we'll go to bed, and an hour later I'll wake you up. We'll creep along to the top of the stairs, and you'll be able to see who's putting the presents out. "
The plan went off without a hitch, and they never breathed a word to the folks. "They never knew that we knew," says Frank, now a Jesuit priest. ''That, to me, was Al's first covert operation. "
Actually, Al's first covert mission came at age 4. "That's when he started smoking my father's cigars - literally," says Al's sister, Regina Murphy, now a Trenton lawyer. The elder Alexander, an assistant city solicitor in Philadelphia, would bring them home, and Al would hide behind the sofa and fire one up. "He got sick from them all the time," says Regina. At that age he also got his first military prop: a bugle he never stopped playing. "And he always liked a military hat," says Regina. "He wore one excessively."
Early on, he could disarm with his charm. "I'll never forget little Alex Haig and his laughing blue eyes," says Sister Mary David, who taught third grade at St. Matthias parochial school in Bala Cynwyd. "I would be scolding him, or somebody else in the class, and he would catch my eye, and he'd look like he was enjoying the whole thing, and that was the end of me. I'd break up laughing. No matter what, he always seemed to be able to handle a situation. It was in his look. It was like he had a presence. "
He was forced to grow up fast. He was only 10 when his father, the promising lawyer, died of cancer. "There we were in an upper-middle-class environment, and suddenly we were faced with rather traumatic financial circumstances," Haig remembers. "My father left my mother relatively penniless, with a big home. That made it clear to me, early on, that whatever my future was to be, I was going to have to hack it by myself."
The family survived with help from relatives; one uncle, John Neeson, was Philadelphia's public works director. "We made do," recalls Regina, "but Al was a little bit the outsider because his friends had things, and he didn't. My mother bought me an English tweed coat, and I wore it for four years. When I outgrew it, my mother said, 'Alec, you've got to wear it now.' Oh, you should've seen him. 'I won't wear a girl's coat!' he yelled. The poor guy had to wear that coat, or else he wouldn't have a coat."
But young Al soon found lucrative ways to show he was in charge. "In those days," he now recalls, "the magazines used to provide incentives for young people to go out and peddle issues. I found a way to recruit some young guys and control them in a way that I was able to get some of their cut. I put it all together. I was the one who got the magazines and the bags."
Every week, he'd scrape together 15 cents for the Saturday matinee at the Egyptian Theater on Bala Avenue, where Gary Cooper and Tom Mix traversed the screen. But it was Cecil B. DeMille's Sign of the Cross that has stayed with him the longest. In debauched ancient Rome, a pagan played by Fredric March falls in love with a Christian girl; thrown in jail, he converts to Christianity when sunlight streams through a window in the shape of a crucifix. Then he is fed to the lions. "For me, it wasn't so much the religious aspect," says Haig. "It was the excitement of the gladiators."
There were two sides to young Al; his free spirit was checked by a respect for hierarchy, authority, discipline. His family says he was fixated on West Point by age 5. And as an altar boy in church, he never made a misstep. "He was the one who trained me," says brother Frank. "The service was in Latin, and you couldn't always understand what the priest was saying. You had to memorize what to do almost by rote, without completely knowing what it all meant. But Al knew all the cues."
In his graduation yearbook at Lower Merion Senior High, he was called a "tireless prankster." He was, by his own recollection, "a bit of a hellraiser. I didn't have a father to kick my tail when I needed it. I traveled with a rather fast gang. We did all the things naughty boys did in those days. We kibitzed, we drank, we stayed up very late at night, and generally crumbed up the neighborhood. We crumbed up all the social parties. We'd keep the girls both giggling and frightened."
His mother would wait up for him; she was afraid he'd botch his bid to get into West Point. "What do you mean, your coming in at five of 12 on a weeknight? I will not have it!" she'd yell, chasing after him with a hairbrush, unimpressed by the fact that her son was a foot taller than she.
By this time, he was always arguing politics with his sister. He first developed an aversion to Marxism from reading editorial cartoons; as he recalls, "Marxism was always a bearded fellow with a bomb behind his back, and the fuse was lit." Regina was attending Temple University, which Al saw as a bastion of leftist thought. Even today, when they argue, Al will say, ''Oh, Jean, you're still at Temple. "
With some political pull from Uncle John Neeson, Haig entered West Point in 1944. He sought the discipline, but there was another factor: "At that time," he says, "Philadelphia society was so structured that most people were born into their futures - while, in the military, I saw a system which seemed more democratic. You could go wherever your talents took you. "
Chapter III: West Point and Korea
The Haigs visited Al at West Point that first autumn. They were shocked by his appearance. "He looked like a cadaver," Regina recalls. "He must've lost 40 pounds."
Al was astounded by the hazing ritual - the physical intimidation, the yelling, the impromptu push-ups. Guys would spit in his face, and he had to take it. At first he didn't. He'd laugh at his tormentors, but, unlike the nuns back home, they didn't laugh back. "Mother," he said, during that first visit, "I'm going to stick it out. They're not going to lick me."
For a while he stuck it out on his own terms. He came so close to flunking German that he was required to take a special exam to determine whether he could stay in the class. "That was the first time I saw his discipline in a crisis," says Perry Gainey, his roommate. "After he passed that exam, his (German) grade shot up, from the bottom to the top, in no time. I thought, 'There's something to this man.' He had an intellect that could get around almost anything. The guy is made out of solid stuff. "
Haig enjoyed sneaking out of his barracks after taps. He'd put on civilian clothes and climb through the rear bathroom window, which opened onto a road to the nearest town.
One night, Haig recalls, "I was having a frothy beer at an inn when the fellow next to me tapped my shoulder and said, 'Don't I recognize you?' It was my math professor. This was well after midnight. He said, 'You get back the same way you got here.' I was given six months' confinement (to the base). Lost my summer leave. I spent my time walking around with a rifle on my shoulder."
For the summer of 1945, Haig was put in charge of all the errant cadets at West Point. This proved to be pivotal for Haig; he found that he liked being in charge. Dishing it out was better than taking it. He even had his own jeep. He put the cadets to work rehabbing buildings at a nearby military camp. "It was the first time," Haig recalls, "that I ever realized what all that hazing and nonsense and discipline was all about."
He finished 214th in the 1947 class of 310 students - "the last man in his class anyone expected to become the first general," said a West Point superintendent many years later. Still, Haig's serious side was in ascendance.
Like many in his class, Haig wound up in Korea. The abuse he'd taken at West Point had prepared him well for his job as aide to Gen. Ned Almond, the first of his tempestuous patrons. "That man (Almond) was a maniac, for my money," recalls Jack Cassidy, an Army buddy who met Haig in the Far East. ''He was always up in the front lines. It's a miracle Al wasn't killed. But that strengthened Al, working for someone who demanded so much. He got this tremendous work ethic."
Haig says Almond was "a thoroughly mean SOB. " On a beach landing once, Haig had to wade through freezing water carrying Almond's bedroll aloft, after Almond had bumped him from the helicopter that carried the general to shore. Another time, Haig and Almond were ambushed while walking beside a U.S. tank. Haig grabbed Almond, and they dove under the tank. "We couldn't move," Haig laughs. "The tank just sat there, for some reason, not firing. So Almond says, 'Al, goddamnit, get up there and get the tank commander to fire!' I had to climb up the side of the tank and bang on the top."
When Chinese troops joined the conflict, Almond and Haig were forced to retreat from a newly built American facility, where the men had just built a plush tile bathtub for Almond. During the retreat, as Haig was to tell his White House colleagues 20 years later, he, the faithful aide, was ordered to brave enemy fire, run back to the site, and hurl a grenade into that tub, "so that no stinking Chinese general would get a bath that night." (Ex-colleague Roger Morris says Haig told that story often. "It was one of his favorite saws, showing how he'd had such a crappy life as an aide.")
The frustrations of Korea soured many American soldiers on military life. Cassidy, Haig's friend, quit the Army in 1954; he is now in the air- conditioning business. But not Haig. He spent the '50s in various staff postings, de rigueur in the armed peace of the Cold War era. He had met his wife, Patricia, in Japan prior to his Korean stint - her father, a general, had been his boss - and their three children were born within six years.
At that time, budding military careerists aspired to become "soldier-scholars," and Haig followed suit. Remarkably, he wrote a master's thesis that foreshadowed the role he'd later play under Kissinger. The paper, on file at Georgetown University, which awarded him an international relations degree in 1961, called for "a new breed of military professional" who'd have "a seat at the pinnacle" of civilian policymaking. (He also deplored making the secretary of state the "vicar" of foreign policy, as he termed it. This tradition was a "monstrosity." He'd feel differently 20 years later, when he held the job.)
Chapter IV: The Kissinger Courtier
His family didn't see much of Haig after he caught on at the Pentagon in 1962. He routinely worked until midnight. As one former Pentagon colleague recalls, "He had a nice, easy way about him. A lot of guys are 9-to-5ers, they've got to get home. Al always put his work first. His wife was a general's daughter, so she knew how to be a service wife. Not every girl is that way."
As military assistant to Joseph Califano, then a Defense Department lawyer, Al Haig pulled the levers of power. When an American citizen had an auto accident 300 miles from Cairo, Haig called Air Force officials to line up a rescue plane. When a Cuban survivor of the Bay of Pigs needed a job, Haig found him one. When Pentagon memos on the Vietnam escalation had to be conveyed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Haig routed the paper.
But what he wouldn't do, even when asked, was work on the Pentagon Papers. After a heroic hiatus in Vietnam (Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross), Haig returned to a polarized Pentagon in the summer of '67. Hawks and doves warred with each other within the Defense Department, and Haig didn't like his new assignment, working on the secret history of the war. Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara, the man who assigned him, had soured on the war. As a career move, Haig didn't like the setup.
The age of dissent had dawned for Al Haig, and he did his best to battle it. Moving back to West Point as a regimental commander, he issued an order that every cadet must march with his fingers cocked squarely at the second knuckle, thumb running stiffly along the index finger and pointing "like an arrow" to the ground, with elbows locked.
Lucian Truscott 4th, a member of a decorated military family and now a writer in New Orleans, recalls, as a cadet, being chewed out by Haig because he challenged a rule requiring chapel attendance on Sundays. Haig exploded, Truscott says: "His fists were clenched. 'You little bastard,' he said. 'I will personally see you out of here one way or the other. You're beyond communism!' I guess as far as he was concerned, I represented uncharted political territory."
The incident still miffs Truscott. "He can be really charming and buddy-buddy, calling me 'Mr. T,'" he says of Haig, "but then, if you cross him in any way, he just goes bonkers. I'm not saying he's unbalanced; it's just that I think he's a real proud person with some real insecurities." (Haig dismisses Truscott as "Peck's bad boy. His imagination runs rampant. His problems weren't with me, they were with the United States Army.")
After serving as deputy commandant, Haig left West Point in 1969 to join Kissinger at the National Security Council. Kissinger, the Harvard professor tapped by Nixon to become national security chief, had assembled a group of brilliant, ambitious aides, many of them more liberal than Haig. The new military aide, recommended to Kissinger by Califano, wasn't supposed to make much of a splash. He was expected to be only a courier between the civilian NSC and the Pentagon brass.
But by mid-1970, Haig had decimated all his rivals. As he had done in Korea and at the Pentagon, he tailored himself to the whims and needs of his patrons. "He'd be sitting there at 10 p.m., his eyes bloodshot, his family life pretty well shot," recalls ex-NSC aide Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a rival in those days, but now an admirer. "Al learned to work in a devious fashion, which was a reflection of the Nixon and Kissinger style."
As NSC alumnus Morton Halperin remembers, Haig knew instinctively how to make himself indispensable to Kissinger. "Kissinger had never run a staff in his life," Halperin says. "He tended to lose every piece of paper you ever gave him. Haig realized that Henry needed someone to manage him. He was very good at the level of, 'How do we get paper in and out of Henry's office without him losing any?' And the rest of us argued policy with Henry all the time. Haig wasn't that way. He'd do whatever was in the boss's interest."
Haig was always at Kissinger's service. When Kissinger had to get dressed for a party, Haig went to his home and helped him pick the right clothes. When Kissinger went partying at the French embassy and accidentally left a classified document on a chair, Haig burned the midnight oil in an effort to track it down. And when Kissinger threw office tantrums, belittling military men as "dumb animals" in Haig 's presence, Haig suffered in silence, his jaw muscles twitching.
Haig also played to Kissinger's biases, says Roger Morris. Africa was not a priority to Kissinger, thus, it was not a priority to Haig. When Morris brought up African issues at NSC meetings, Haig would pound out a jungle drumbeat on the table. "He'd be giggling and laughing," says Morris. "It was his seamy side." ( Haig, in turn, calls Morris "an ultra-ultra-liberal whose heart was on his sleeve.")
Nevertheless, aides say Haig was a gossip who dumped on Kissinger and Nixon when they weren't around. Nixon was "our drunk." Kissinger was "the madman across the hall" whose "mind is in his pants. " As Halperin recalls, "It always came out in his wisecracks. He'd say these things with resigned cynicism, as if to say, 'This is the way powerful people are.'" Just like the Main Line girls young Haig had kept "giggling and frightened," NSC colleagues would laugh, but they were also fearful of what he might be saying about them.
Haig has a different view of his NSC behavior. "In a tense environment," he says, "one of the most refreshing things is the ability to break the ice and have a good chuckle....I'd zing circumstances, or say something funny about the president. But, boy, if you have an impressionistic young fella there, you have to be careful....Some will take you literally."
Ultimately, his office work would earn him four general's stars from Nixon. ''When he got his first star, we all went to the Oval Office," says an NSC alumnus. "Nixon pins it on and says to Henry, 'When I go downstairs at night, there's Al working, while you're off in Georgetown with the girls. ' You should've seen Henry's face drop."
Haig 's punishing pace at work paid off. He was soon wielding his most effective weapon: the cover memo. "He was a master at putting a spin on someone else's document," Halperin recalls. "People thought they were working for Henry, but their stuff would be sitting in Haig's pile. Haig would read it, and maybe he'd send it on to Henry with a subtle cover note on what he thought. There was resentment from the staff."
What Halperin didn't know, until 1973, was that his home phone was being tapped, to determine whether he was leaking classified material to the news media. Haig, who was cordial to Halperin in the office, was making regular trips to the FBI to read the wiretap transcripts.
Haig, the loyal aide, supervised the taps at Kissinger's request. All told, 17 government aides and news reporters were tapped over a 21-month period; some aides were still being tapped long after they left the NSC. "In retrospect," says Halperin, "I'm surprised at how easily Al was able to sit around and shoot the breeze with me."
Haig once told a reporter that he had "absolutely no apologies to make" about the taps. Today he voices second thoughts. "I didn't like being involved in it, but I was ordered to be," he says. "This was a very peripheral aspect of my days and hours at the NSC. I went in repeatedly and said, 'This is not our role,' but the program was continued. It wasn't right."
Such episodes have given Al Haig a rogue's-eye view of government leaders. He sees himself as "a Boy Scout, in some respects," who loves his country. But he adds the kind of caveat that will never be found in a civics text: "You see so much in this town....You can bring high-mindedness to your chores, but, from time to time, in order to succeed, it requires a degree of practicality, with regards to the seamier side. Would you rather win or be right?"
By the spring of 1970, when Haig was officially named Kissinger's deputy, many of his rivals had decided it was better to lose. A number of them quit in protest over Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. Aides recall the moment when NSC staff secretary William Watts announced he was leaving rather than implement the policy. Haig told Watts, "You've just had an order from your commander in chief," and thus he couldn't quit. Whereupon Watts replied, "F- you, Al, I just did," and walked away.
Three years later, by coincidence, Watts was slated to meet for drinks with an acquaintance, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. It turned out to be the night that Haig , as White House chief of staff, told Ruckelshaus that his commander in chief was ordering him to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Ruckelshaus quit instead, met for drinks with Watts, and called out, "Hey, here's the first guy who got that line from Al Haig!"
Chapter V: Nixon's Nixon
It has been said of Haig that he is blessed with the hands of a safecracker, that he can maneuver in the most sensitive circumstances and never leave a trace of his presence. As Nixon's chief of staff (named as such in May 1973), he survived Watergate, and although critics contend that he aided the cover-up - White House tapes show him mapping the futile effort to rebut John Dean's testimony - he came away from the scandal with the image of a man who had kept the ship of state on an even keel while Capt. Queeg fretted in his cabin.
Haig 's sister Regina says it was during Nixon's last months that Haig became convinced of his ability to run the show. "Personally," she says, "I think he has been president already. " He ran a very tight ship. According to his brother Frank, he planted phony memos with selective staff members to see who was leaking to the news media. (Frank even recalls reading a fake story, based on a fake memo, on the front page of the Washington Post.) At one point, when aides mentioned to Haig that Nixon had conversed by phone with a senator, unbeknownst to the chief of staff, he shot up from his seat, and growled, "I run this White House, and don't you ever forget it! Don't let that happen again! "
All told, Haig's yeomanlike devotion to duty earned him praise from the beleaguered president, who in 1972 promoted him to four-star rank, bypassing 240 generals with greater seniority. After his resignation, Nixon told a group of guests at his home, "Al Haig is the meanest, toughest, most ambitious son of a bitch I ever knew." Haig is familiar with that remark, and says, "That, for him, is the ultimate form of flattery." But does Haig take it as a compliment? "He thought it was a compliment," Haig replies.
Although many people trace Haig's current image problems back to his contentious stint as secretary of state under Reagan, the record shows he also fared poorly when forced to share power with Gerald Ford's aides. "Al operates well as an underling," says Roger Morris, "but he has a problem working on an equal basis. That's why I can't imagine him (as president) going to Capitol Hill and stroking egos. You need to show respect and homage, in a democracy, for competing sources of power. Al was never good at that."
Haig is defiant about the Ford period, saying, "The problem was, Ford had a couple of bums. Really bad moral degenerates. Booze and womanizing right in the White House. I wouldn't tolerate that."
Ford solved his personnel problem by naming Haig NATO commander in Europe. By all accounts, Haig performed superbly in his five years as NATO commander, making friends among European allies who had viewed him with suspicion at the outset. He and his family lived well in an 18th-century chateau near Brussels. He drove a $65,000 Mercedes. He was lionized by the troops. Every pronouncement he made was tape-recorded by his staff. Terrorists targeted him without success. His daughter Barbara remembers being falsely told by security agents one night that the noise she'd heard was merely a drunk farmer who'd been firing shots at the chateau while she slept.
It was a heady life, and it did little to dampen Haig's self-esteem. As he told a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1978, "If you knew everything I know, you'd agree with everything I'm about to say. "That remark has been thrown back at Haig over the years. "It was a joke," he laughs now. "Jeez, you didn't think that was serious, did you?"
Chapter VI: "I'm in Control"
Al Haig is a can-do guy, not a soul-searcher. Asked not long ago to name and analyze the biggest mistake he ever made, Haig said, "What, you want me to go through one of those mental masturbation routines? I won't go through that. "
But those who know him invariably focus on his behavior as secretary of state in the early months of the Reagan administration. Two events are cited: his bid to get Reagan to sign a document naming him point man, or "vicar," on all foreign policy matters, and his "I'm in control" announcement after Reagan was shot.
Of the first event, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who calls Haig "very able," nevertheless says, "It was a serious misjudgment to think he could hustle the President." An old White House associate says, "I think Al looked on (Reagan's aides) as pissants. He looked down his nose at them." ( Haig argues that his woes mounted because, unlike the Reagan inner circle, "I refused to tell the boss only what he wanted to hear. ")
As for the "I'm in control" statement, made in the White House press room as Reagan lay wounded, it is only fair to say that for years, Haig has been quoted out of context about this. The power-hungry image becomes muted when the full statement is examined. What Haig actually said was: "I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president," who would be back within hours. Haig says he made the statement in order to show the Soviets that, even with Reagan wounded, America was still vigilant. "My heavens," he says, "if I'd had any idea it was going to be portrayed (as a power grab), I would've been more careful about what I said and how I said it."
Barbara Haig thinks her father's strengths hurt him in his dealings with the Reagan people. "When he's in a job," she says, "he's pushing himself. He is trying to achieve things, make a difference. And he is a strong personality, a strong presence in whatever he does. He doesn't mince his words. He wants the people around him to push themselves. That's what he means by leadership."
Thus Al Haig marches on, yearning to return to "the vortex." He could choose the good life, the one he leads now, the life of corporate board memberships and fat consulting contracts, of nights at the lectern and net duty with Clint. But some old soldiers refuse to fade away. The rogue who smoked cigars at age 4, who drank beer after taps, seems eager to break his bonds, to command once and for all, not to kowtow any longer.
And as for all the bad baggage that clings to his image, don't make the mistake of asking about those things too many times. He'll let you know when you've crossed the line. He'll rise from his seat and he'll loom over you, looking you over as if you'd been caught marching with a crooked elbow, and the easy laugh will become a bark of defiance:
"Don't ask me to defend myself against a bunch of negatives you can find in the public library!" he'll say. "What have I really done in public service? Have I made a difference? Who pulled the NATO alliance together when it was a damn shambles? Who stood up to Jimmy Carter on the neutron bomb when he was about to cancel it? These are the issues that are part of a man's record, and not the personal peccadilloes of whether he's an arrogant son of a bitch or not.
"I'm never sure of myself. But a leader has to be confident of his position. Otherwise, God help us. It doesn't mean he's always right, but it does mean he knows the monkey's on his back, and he damn well better get the team marching. Because you can't run things any other way. "
And then he'll slowly fold himself back into his chair, working hard to be at ease. The vicar is in control again.