Everyone remembers (or has heard about) the sweaty, bug-eyed, out-of-breath Haig taking to the White House podium in the wake of the shooting of Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, and uttering those now-infamous words:
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 to the Vice President, 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 and in close touch with him.The first problem with this, of course, is that it was factually incorrect. Haig, as Secretary of State, was actually fifth in line, constitutionally. After Vice President George H.W. Bush, constitutionally, there was the Speaker of the House (Tip O'Neill), President Pro Tempore of the Senate (Strom Thurmond), and then Haig.
Hitchens sums up the popular sentiment, hardened into history, about the episode:
...[T]his neurotic narcissist seized the microphone and made a clumsy attempt to seize power....nothing could equal that day's performance, which evinced all the sweaty, pasty-faced, trembling symptoms of a weak king or of a slobbering dauphin who could not wait to try on the crown.Haig, without doubt, had his flaws, and power-hunger was among them. Still, I've always felt that he got a bad rap on this, and that--in context--he actually did the right thing.
What is almost always forgotten about the incident is what directly preceded it. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, there was a great deal of confusion. It was not even known that Reagan had been hit for at least half an hour. White House press secretary James Brady had been gravely wounded. That left assistant press secretary Larry Speakes, who was back at the White House, to address reporters in the White House press room.
Vice President Bush was aboard Air Force Two, which was en route back to Washington from Texas. Understandably, with Reagan wounded and the VP in the air, the press asked who was in charge of the country. Speakes, giving one of the most disastrous press briefings in history, answered "I cannot answer that question at this time."
According to the reports of those who were there, Secretary of State Al Haig, the man in the administration charged with keeping the closest eye on the Soviet Union at one the highest-tension periods in the Cold War, watching the disaster unfold on television as Speakes essentially tells the world that nobody seems to be in charge for the moment, shoots out of his chair and bolts down to the press room. I've asked myself, "What would I have done if I were in Al Haig's shoes that day, as the highest ranking person in the White House?" The answer I always come back to is: I would've run downstairs and assured the world that the United States was not rudderless and asleep at the switch. I would've wanted to send the message that someone is in charge here.
Did he argue incorrectly from the Constitution? Yes. Would it have been better if he hadn't? Of course. But if Haig's concern at that moment was that the world see there was someone at the helm (as he maintained ever-after), then he did about the only responsible thing one could do. Read it again, with the context in mind. This is not someone trying to pull off a coup d'etat:
As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course. [Emphasis added]Haig's press conference can be viewed in the last few minutes of this and continues into the first few minutes of this. (The second bit is interesting in that it is followed immediately by a discussion between Bernard Shaw and Daniel Schorr on the nascent Cable News Network. Schorr, who was about 85 even then, has always been a left wing kook even among journalists. He immediately goes after Haig on the constitutional misunderstanding, saying that "the alacrity with which he fills vacuums has been well-noted." One wonders if this is where the harshly negative casting of the incident in the "conventional wisdom" began?)
Much of the criticism of Haig's life and legacy is deserved. But in his most infamous moment, he was actually doing the right thing where history has immortalized him as doing the wrong thing.