By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Decoding the Times’ Haig obituary

Tim Weiner of the New York Times weighs in with a harsh obituary of Alexander Haig. You should check out his description of Haig’s behavior after Ronald Reagan had been shot — he comes off as a power-mad general intent on staging a coup.

No, Haig did not speak with great precision that day. But do former Reagan aides like Richard Allen, who clearly hated Haig, really believe that Haig didn’t understand the vice president was next in line if Reagan were incapacitated?

The key to Weiner’s piece is this paragraph:

“His tenure as secretary of state was very traumatic,” John M. Poindexter, later Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser, recalled in the oral history “Reagan: The Man and His Presidency” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.”

Amazingly, Weiner does not identify Poindexter as (1) a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly brought Reagan’s presidency down, and which unfolded years after Haig left the Reagan administration; and (2) the mastermind of a surveillance system during the George W. Bush years called, in a nice Orwellian touch, the Total Information Awareness System, or TIAS.

Getting trashed by the likes of John Poindexter is a good thing. Too bad Weiner didn’t make that clear.

More: It gets worse. BP Myers notes in the comments that Weiner claims the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which cost the lives of 241 marines, took place in “the immediate aftermath” of Haig’s dismissal, as though his policies were somehow responsible. In fact, the date of the bombing was Oct. 23, 1983, a year and a half after Haig’s departure.

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Alexander Haig, 1924-2010


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  1. BP Myers

    Wow. What a hatchet job. That can’t be his formal “obituary” in the Times, can it?

    Far too cute and smarmy that he fulfills Haig’s prophecy by putting his actions post-Reagan’s shooting in the third paragraph.

    He also states that Haig was dismissed on June 24, 1982, and then goes on to say that “in the immediate aftermath” of his departure came the Beirut barracks bombing, which in fact occurred on October 23, 1983.

    Poindexter says: “As a result of this constant tension that existed between the White House and the State Department about who was going to be responsible for national security and foreign policy, we got very little done.”

    Sounds familiar, don’t it? Except the part where very little got done, that is.

    Maybe it gets better after that, but I’ll have to take your word for it.

  2. Laurence Kranich

    I actually laughed out loud when I read the prediction of the third paragraph of Haig’s obituary, followed by the event – in the third paragraph. It’s the single most memorable event of Haig’s career and belonged exactly in that place. For that element, I’ll credit Weiner with one of the best obituary vignettes ever.

  3. While I admire your convictions in rushing to the defense of a man who many thoughtful Americans at the time considered an imperious control freak, I fear you glossed over his comments during the Reagan-wounding aftermath. Whsatever he may have — in retrospect — meant to say, he did indeed inaccurately allude to Constitutional authority for his actions; to career-crushing effect.

    Also, “when others were running around like Chicken Little”, sounds a bit like a self-justifying Haig-ism, unless it’s a MediaNation-ism. Citation, pls?

  4. Sean Griffin

    Novelist Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote an interesting article on Haig for the Village Voice. Haig was the Regimental Commander at West Point in the late `60s. Truscott was a cadet. They had a run-in over mandatory religious services. Truscott called him the “abominable no-man”.

  5. Andre Mayer

    I was never a fan of Haig, by any means, but I’ve always felt that he’s been unfairly disparaged for his actions following the Reagan shooting. Reagan’s staff, as I recall, was insisting that the President was in control, when everyone knew he was badly wounded and undergoing surgery. The Vice President was in transit. Haig, a former senior military commander (NATO) and national security aide, was clearly concerned that the Soviets might perceive a leadership vacuum of which they could take advantage, asserted that he was in control at the White House — I believe he spoke from, or mentioned, the War Room. As Secretary of State he was, in fact, the senior member of the administration capable of exercising military command, and of course his background lent further credibility.

    There’s no reason to believe that Haig was acting unreasonably, nor is the constitutional line of succession relevant to the case. Clearly no one else had any idea what to do.

  6. Aaron Read

    I know virtually nothing of Al Haig, or the imfamous incident in question, but I will say this generic statement that I think may be applicable here: Just because everyone is doing their jobs very badly, doesn’t mean that one guy doing his job only sort-of badly means he’s doing it right.

    From what I’ve read this week, it seems like Haig really screwed up badly when Reagan was shot…and it was only because virtually everyone else was so flamingly incompetent that Haig’s actions can be justified at all.

    Of course, given how incompetent Reagan was, are we really so surprised that his administration was?

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