Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig led a multi-storied career. A graduate of Lower Merion High School and West Point Academy, he went on to be a Presidential Candidate, a famous general, supreme allied commander of Nato, Nixon's Chief of Staff, and Reagan's Secretary of State.

March 30 marks the anniversary of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. When we interviewed General Alexander Haig, in his beautiful, lush Washington, DC office, it was during the time of the Clinton impeachment. His time was in demand from journalists and TV reporters because of his connection with the Nixon impeachment. But, he graciously freed up a whole afternoon for us. His secretary told us that he had been interviewed in the morning by ABC news and CBS news and when Fox news asked for an appointment in the afternoon, "he told them no. I'm meeting with Selma and Ed Davis."

We drove to Washington, DC from our Lower Merion home, and arrived in plenty of time for our 1:00 appointment. But, there was no place to park. All the garages had "full" signs and forget about getting a place on the street. In desperation, Edgar ran out of the car, up to his office, knocked on the door, and asked for help in parking. His secretary called for Haig's assistant, Mr. Goldberg, who went to the garage, spoke to the attendant, and told us that the Ambassador from one of the African countries would move his car to accommodate us.

To start with the Reagan assassination attempt, General Haig told us that he was in his office (Secretary of State), when the news came on. He turned on the TV and heard a White House representative answering questions - "Is the President alive?" "I don't know." "Where is the Vice President?" Same answer, "I don't know." "Has the military been put on high alert?" Again, "I don't know." "Have we spoken to Russia?" Again, "I don't know."

General Haig told us that he remembered the Kennedy assassination and the turmoil in the country immediately following. He said that he wanted to put an end to any panic that might arise. Vice President Bush was in Texas, and was put on a plane and headed back to Washington, but meanwhile, no one appeared to have any authority.

He told us that he ran up the stairs to the media room, arrived breathless, snatched the microphone from the uninformed white house spokesperson, and said, "I am in charge." His motivation was to reassure the American people that everything would be OK and that someone was looking after the government until the Vice President arrived.

We talked about the Nixon tapes. "I told him that the tapes were his and that he should destroy them before they became public knowledge and caused a furor." Nixon's answer to Haig was one that he had heard before in his lifetime, "Oh, Alex. what do you know? You're not a lawyer." Haig said that he thought Nixon wanted to keep the tapes for his memoirs.

When Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, early into Reagan's presidency, Haig told us that Reagan called for an immediate meeting of his Cabinet. Vice President, George Bush rushed into the room and said, "Israel has to be punished for this." Reagan asked all the Cabinet Secretaries for their opinions and looked from one to another, around the table. "I was the last one to speak and all of the other Secretaries, except the Secretary of Commerce, wanted to condemn Israel. I said, one day Mr. President, you will get down on your knees and thank Israel for this heroic act." According to Haig, with that, Reagan slammed down his papers, stood up, and stormed out of the room. "We didn't know what to do. Should we stay? Should we leave? While we were discussing our options, the President returned and said - Al is right. Let's give Israel all the help it needs."

Haig had many close calls in his life. He remembered one time, as head of NATO when his driver had a very heavy foot on the accelerator. "That saved my life," he said because "just after we flew across a bridge, it blew up."

While head of NATO, he received word that his mother was close to death in a Princeton, NJ hospital. He flew in, still dressed in his Supreme Allied Commander uniform, no problem getting a plane, and arrived at her hospital room. She recognized him, immediately and said, "Oh, Alex, if you had only studied the law, you could have made something of yourself." And those were her last words.

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