N.C. Senate Race; Exporting the Homeless; Haig Bows Out
Good morning, it’s Tuesday, June 25, 2019. Thirty-seven years ago today, Ronald Reagan asked Secretary of State Alexander Haig for his resignation. When such an entreaty comes from a president it’s not really a request, which Haig, a career U.S. Army officer, fully understood. Although he didn’t quite realize it, Haig had essentially resigned on June 14, 1982, when he demanded that Reagan make changes to the administration’s foreign policy team.
And so it was that on June 25 of that year, the White House press office issued a written statement from the president lauding Haig for his four decades of public service “in a succession of assignments demanding the highest level of personal sacrifice, courage and leadership.” This was true and then some -- Al Haig was a much-decorated combat infantry officer in Korea and Vietnam -- but Reagan’s wording that Haig's resignation had been accepted “with great regret” was a polite pretense.
In a moment, I’ll have more on Haig’s White House tenure, which I first wrote about five years ago. First, I’d steer you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. graduated from West Point in 1947 and was assigned to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in post-World War II Japan. Three years later -- on this date in 1950, in fact, -- the Korean War broke out and Al Haig soon found himself in the middle of the action. He also would fight in Vietnam, where he was wounded and earned medals for heroism.
An Army lifer, Haig went on to serve as supreme allied commander for NATO; before that, he had civilian stints in government as an assistant to Henry Kissinger and White House chief of staff in the Nixon administration.
Haig came to the job of secretary of state during Reagan’s first term. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, he took on that role while harboring presidential aspirations of his own. Unlike Secretary Clinton, however, Haig’s ambitions were so close to the surface he sometimes seemed to forget who actually held the title of commander-in-chief.
For his entire 18-month tenure heading the State Department, Haig engaged in multi-front turf wars inside the administration, chafing openly with the national security adviser, the U.N. ambassador, various senior members of the White House staff, and even the vice president of the United States.
The most public manifestation of Haig’s problematic ego occurred on March 30, 1981, when Reagan was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. At the White House, the situation was understandably fraught. Vice President George H.W. Bush was flying back from Texas; top Reagan aides James A. Baker and Edwin Meese were at George Washington University Hospital with the president. White House press secretary Jim Brady, grievously wounded by the would-be assassin, was fighting for his life. The issue of who was actually speaking for the White House was an open question -- but not to Al Haig.
As deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes briefed the media, Haig watched on a television monitor. Suddenly, Haig bolted from the White House Situation Room into the press briefing room. Replacing Speakes at the lectern, Haig took questions from reporters, one of whom asked him who was making presidential decisions while Reagan was on the operating table.
“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm, he will do so,” Haig replied. “He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the vice president, and in close touch with him.”
Leaving aside the casual sexism of Haig’s vernacular -- women reporters were present -- the secretary of state made hash of constitutional succession, forgetting the speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate. Haig’s “I am in control” phrasing was incredibly presumptuous anyway. And his frenetic demeanor conveyed the opposite impression; the man didn't even seem in control of his own emotions.
After recovering from the shooting, Reagan graciously overlooked this lapse in decorum. But similar slips continued, including the time Haig made a fuss that he wasn’t on the presidential helicopter that flew from Heathrow Airport in London to Windsor Castle. Worse, from Reagan’s standpoint, were Haig’s incessant attempts to thwart Reagan’s vision regarding foreign policy.
History does not render the verdict that Al Haig was wrong and Ronald Reagan was right on these intra-administration policy disputes. For one thing, Haig opposed the overtures to Iran that resulted in the Iran-contra scandal. But the U.S. democratic tradition is clear that there can be only one president at a time.
In her tenure as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton recognized this immutable constitutional truth. Even after she left the job, in a memoir written as she prepared her campaign to succeed the man who bested her for the 2008 Democratic nomination and then brought her into the administration, Clinton walked a delicate line over her policy disagreements with President Obama. Most notably, she suggested that she favored more forceful U.S action in Syria. But she apparently never did so in a way that made her behavior the issue. Nor did she ever question whose decision it was to make.
The Gipper would have appreciated Hillary’s attitude.
“Today was the day -- I told Al H. [that] I had decided to accept his resignation,” Reagan wrote in his diary on June 25, 1982.
“This has been a heavy load,” Reagan added. “Up to Camp David where we were in time to see Al read his letter of resignation on TV. I’m told that it was his 4th re-write. Apparently his 1st was pretty strong -- then he thought better of it. I must say it was O.K. He gave only one reason and did say there was a disagreement on foreign policy. Actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec. of State did."
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics