Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why didn't I name Al "I am in charge Haig" in my last post?

In my post Powerful subordinates - good points, bad points, it all works out, I named two members of the Executive Branch who caused untold grief for the Presidents whom they theoretically served.

The two that I named were Douglas MacArthur, who reported to Commander in Chief Harry Truman, and James Schlesinger, who reported to three Presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Carter).

Perhaps you're wondering why I didn't name Al Haig. One of the reasons that Schlesinger took his action with Nixon's Joint Chiefs of Staff was because of a fear that Nixon would relay an order to Haig rather than through the official chain of command. Even Gerald Ford was uncomfortable with Haig's suggestion to then Vice President Ford that Ford could pardon Nixon after becoming president. But Haig is most famous for his "I am in charge" remark after President Reagan was shot. And yes, I'm familiar with Haig's performance that day; I almost said "I am in charge" while I was on stage at Bridges.

In case you're not familiar with Haig's role on March 30, 1981, here's an account:

One of the oddest events that day involved the behavior of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who appeared in the White House Press Room to announce that he was in charge while Reagan was in surgery.

In truth, Vice President George H.W. Bush was in the air on his way back to Washington, and evidently Haig wanted to assure the country that someone (namely himself) was running things even though Bush was in telephonic communication. Even as Reagan lay on the operating table, Haig told other administration officials that he considered himself constitutionally in charge at that moment, according to tapes of the conversation. To many critics, Haig revealed an overweening ambition by making this somewhat comic announcement to the world. (He later ran for presidency and lost).

Here's another perspective:

As Reagan underwent surgery, members of his administration met in the Situation Room at the White House to discuss the crisis. Among them was Secretary of State Alexander Haig (1924–). One thing they discussed was who was in charge while the president was in surgery. According to tapes of the meeting released in 2001, Haig said, "So the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here." Haig repeated the statement at a press conference soon afterwards, saying, "As of now, I am in control here in the White House pending return of the vice president."

But Haig was subsequently defended by Edwin Meese:

During a Larry King Live television program on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination attempt, former attorney general Edwin Meese III (1931–) said criticism of Haig had been unfair: "[Haig] had heard from the press room that the statement was made that they weren't sure who was in charge, and he went bounding up there. And I think that was really his motivation, to make it clear to foreign leaders that we were not adrift and there was no vacuum."

While this whole episode is troubling, I don't put it at the same level as Schlesinger's intentional disregard of Nixon and Ford, and it's definitely not at the same level as MacArthur's open insubordination. As far as is known, Haig did not use his "in charge" authority to do anything contrary to Reagan's (or Bush's) intentions.

For the record, George H.W. Bush had much more common sense. Wikipedia recounts a story that also appears in a Bush autobiography:

On March 30, 1981, early into the administration, Reagan was shot and seriously wounded in Washington, D.C. Bush, second in command by the presidential line of succession, was in Dallas, Texas and flew back to Washington immediately. Reagan's cabinet convened in the White House Situation Room, where they discussed various issues, including the availability of the nuclear football. When Bush's plane landed, his aides advised him to proceed directly to the White House by helicopter, as an image of the government still functioning despite the attack. Bush rejected the idea, responding, "only the president lands on the South Lawn." This made a positive impression on Reagan,[26] who recovered and returned to work within two weeks. From then on, the two men would have regular Thursday lunches in the Oval Office; Reagan admired Bush's continued loyalty to him and the administration.

For more information on Bush's views on subordination to the President, see this biography from the U.S. Senate. And, for a clearer picture, note how Dan Quayle refrained from criticizing Bush when he was Bush's vice president; the example had been set.

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