Alexander Haig, Presidential Adviser, Dies

Secretary of State Alexander Haig in a 1981 file photo.
AP Photo/Bill Foley
Last Updated 11:43 a.m. ET

Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a four-star general who served as a top adviser to three presidents and ran for the office himself, has died. He was 85.

Haig died today at about 1:30 a.m. at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he was surrounded by his family, according to two of his children, Alexander and Barbara.

Hospital spokesman Gary Stephenson said Haig passed away from complications associated with an infection.

In a statement released this morning, President Barack Obama called Haig "a great American who served our country with distinction.

"General Haig exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service," Mr. Obama said. "He enjoyed a remarkable and decorated career, rising to become a four-star general and serving as Supreme Allied Commander of Europe before also serving as Secretary of State. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Haig's long and decorated military career launched the Washington career for which he is better known, including top posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. He never lived down his televised response to the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Hours after the shooting, then Secretary of State Haig went before the cameras intending, he said later, to reassure Americans that the White House was functioning.

"As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president," Haig said.

Some saw the comment as an inappropriate power grab in the absence of Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was flying back to Washington from Texas.

In his book, "Caveat," Haig later wrote that he had been "guilty of a poor choice of words and optimistic if I had imagined I would be forgiven the imprecision out of respect for the tragedy of the occasion."

Haig ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988, when Bush won the Republican nomination.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Haig "served his country in many capacities for many years, earning honor on the battlefield, the confidence of presidents and prime ministers, and the thanks of a grateful nation."

"I think of him as a patriot's patriot," said George P. Shultz, who succeeded Haig as the country's top diplomat in 1982.

"No matter how you sliced him it came out red, white and blue. He was always willing to serve."

In 2001, CBS "60 Minutes" Correspondent Scott Pelley recapped the events after Mr. Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, when Haig famously declared "I'm in control here."

As deputy press secretary Larry Speakes was briefing reporters after the shooting, he seemed vague about who was running the government.

Haig thought that was a disaster, Pelley reported. He went to the briefing room. When a reporter asked who was running the government, Haig moved toward the podium.

Haig answered the reporter: "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. As for now, I'm 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."

Haig was wrong to say "constitutionally." The constitution mentions the secretary of state only in an actual transfer of power and then it places him fourth in line.

"I wasn't talking about transition," Haig said in 2001. "I was talking about the executive branch, who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not, 'who is in line should the President die?'"

In 2006, CBS Radio News Correspondent Peter Maer spoke with former President George H.W. Bush about Haig's infamous statement.

"I didn't take it as a personal attack on my prerogatives or on my position as vice president of the United States," Mr. Bush told Maer. "I had known Al Haig a long, long time and he was under a lot of pressure there. He took a huge hit on that and I'm not sure it was altogether fair."

CBS Radio News Correspondent Tom Foty recalled being in the press corps when Haig made his statement.

"I have to say that at least for some of us there, it did not appear to be anything more than an attempt to calm things down by providing an answer to a question that really was on the mind of most everybody in that room and much of the country," Foty said after learning of Haig's death. "He has been pigeonholed by that quote for 29 years."

Born Dec. 2, 1924, in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Alexander Meigs Haig spent his boyhood days dreaming about a career in the military. With the help of an uncle who had congressional contacts, he secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1943.

After seeing combat in Korea and Vietnam, Haig - an Army colonel at the time - was tapped by Henry Kissinger to be his military adviser on the National Security Council under President Richard M. Nixon. Haig "soon became indispensable," Kissinger later said of his protege.

Nixon promoted Haig in 1972 from a two-star general to a four-star rank, passing over 240 high-ranking officers with greater seniority.

The next year, as the Watergate scandal deepened, Nixon turned to Haig and appointed him to succeed H.R. Haldeman as White House chief of staff. He helped the president prepare his impeachment defense - and as Nixon was preoccupied with Watergate, Haig handled many of the day-to-day decisions normally made by the chief executive.

On Nixon's behalf, Haig also helped arrange the wiretaps of government officials and reporters, as the president tried to plug the sources of news leaks.

About a year after assuming his new post as Nixon's right-hand man, Haig was said to have played a key role in persuading the president to resign. He also suggested to President Gerald Ford that he pardon his predecessor for any crimes committed while in office - a pardon that is widely believed to have cost Ford the presidency in the 1976 race against Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Years after serving as one of Nixon's closest aides, Haig would be dogged by speculation that he was "Deep Throat" - the shadowy source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break the Watergate story. Haig denied it, repeatedly, and the FBI's Mark Felt was eventually revealed as the secret source.

Following Nixon's resignation, Haig stayed with the new Ford administration for about six weeks, but then returned to the military as commander in chief of U.S. forces in Europe and supreme allied commander of NATO forces - a post he held for more than four years. He quit during the Carter administration over the handling of the Iran hostage crisis.

Haig briefly explored a presidential run in 1979, but decided he didn't have enough support and instead took a job as president of United Technologies - his first job in the private sector since high school.

When Ronald Reagan became the 40th president of the United States, Haig returned to public service as Reagan's secretary of state, and declared himself the "vicar of American foreign policy."

His 17-month tenure was marked by turf wars with other top administration officials - including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and national security adviser William Clark.

Two months into the new administration, Haig was portrayed as pounding a table in frustration when the chairmanship of a crisis management team went to Bush. Despite the clashes, Haig received high praise from professional diplomats for trying to achieve a stable relationship with the Soviet Union.

In his book, Haig said he had concluded during a 1982 trip to Europe with the president that the "effort to write my character out of the script was under way with a vengeance." He resigned days later.

Describing himself as a "dark horse," Haig sought the Republican presidential nomination for the 1988 elections. On the campaign trail, he told supporters about his desire to "keep the Reagan revolution alive," but he also railed against the administration's bulging federal deficit - calling it an embarrassment to the Republican Party.

Haig dropped out of the race just days before the New Hampshire primary.

During his career in public service, Haig became known for some of his more colorful or long-winded language. When asked by a judge to explain an 18 1/2-minute gap in one of the Nixon White House tapes, Haig responded: "Perhaps some sinister force had come in."

And later, when he criticized Reagan's "fiscal flabbiness," Haig asserted that the "ideological religiosity" of the administration's economic policies were to blame for doubling the national debt to $2 trillion in 1987.

Haig is survived by his wife of 60 years, Patricia; his children Alexander, Brian and Barbara; eight grandchildren; and his brother, the Rev. Francis R. Haig.