In our televised American culture, Alexander Haig is likely now best-remembered for his moment in the White House briefing room only hours after President Ronald Reagan was shot at the Washington Hilton on March 31, 1981. After racing up the stairs from the Situation Room, he muttered shakily on live television, to a nation unclear about what had just happened, “I am in control here in the White House….” In the absence of Vice President GHWBush, who was flying back to Washington, and due to rumors that had gone out on the air that ‘no one was in charge in the White House’ the new Secretary of State felt America needed reassurance — and our enemies needed reminding — that the machinery of American government was still operational despite the shooting.
Alexander Haig was unsuccessful in that moment.
Once the shock of the assassination attempt wore off, and our President recovered and America focused on Reagan’s horrible economy, we needed laughs. Haig’s shaky, sweaty statement became one source of those laughs. He left the State department the following year, believing he’d lost the President’s confidence in a battle with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and a National Security Council that was to become infamous later in Reagan’s presidency.
But it was actually one thing Alexander Haig did more than half a decade before this television moment that shaped our current American political landscape and made our country what it is today. Perhaps more than any other American of the twentieth century who was not President, Alexander Haig forged our political culture and set American history on our current, sorry path.
Hephaestus was the Greek smith-god who forged all the thrones in the Palace of Olympus. Al Haig, American Hephaestus, forged the current view of our American president as invulnerable to accountability for any actions while in office. (Indulge me the alliteration, please; the god is more well-known nowadays as the Roman deity, Vulcan.) Alexander Haig shaped the way we view the Presidency today, and changed the course of history with stern advice he gave a new president just finding his way in the Oval Office after an earlier American tragedy.
In 1973, merely one year after his landslide re-election, Richard Nixon lost his impeachment insurance when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign the Vice Presidency in a plea deal to avoid prison for bribery. Busy covering up Watergate and embroiling America in foreign policy machinations to distract from his and his aides’ malfeasance, Nixon settled on the House Minority Leader to be America’s first appointed Vice President: Michigan’s Gerald Ford.
The process of selecting a Vice President was new; previously, vacancies went unfilled. After John Kennedy’s assassination and LBJ’s ascension, Congress wondered whether it was wise to leave the in-waiting Vice slot unfilled. This problem was especially well illustrated in 1963 by LBJ’s health and that of the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, John McCormack and the 85-year-old president pro tempore of the Senate, Carl Hayden.
So a constitutional solution was proposed and, only seven years after its ratification, America was now using our brand new XXVth Amendment.
During his Congressional confirmation hearings, the first ever for a Vice President, Gerald Ford was asked about pardoning his predecessor, should it come to that. Widely interpreted as a promise not to were these words, “I don’t think the American people would stand for it.”
In retrospect, you can see the wiggle room.
As Bob Woodward reported in “Shadow,” Alexander Haig sought out Vice President Ford in the chaotic first week of August, 1974, and proposed a Nixon pardon, full and complete, for any and all crimes committed. Ford said the deal wasn’t “consummated” then but shocked the nation five weeks later on a lovely fall Sunday by granting the disgraced ex-President just such a pardon. In truth, he had been right almost a year before: America didn’t stand for it, and his trust with the slowly healing American people was irretrievably broken.
Jerry Ford, an otherwise decent man who had already told America that “our long national nightmare is over” when he assumed the Presidency, undertook his Nixon pardon path aided by Alexander Haig, who thus forged modern American political culture.
America was denied a healing process begun when Ford became President. We will never likely know the extent of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and ‘other high crimes’ because the pardon ended his accountability. Thus began the corruption of America as a nation that can withstand great harm and still survive: we are instead a vulnerable people to be protected from the spectacle of accountability for our leaders’ wrongs. It’s a twisted notion of American exceptionalism: the Executive Exemption from Accountability. It saved Ronald Reagan and GHWBush from impeachment and prosecution for their Iran/Contra high crimes and saved GWBush and Dick Cheney from impeachment and prosecution for their 9/11 negligence and subsequently lying America into war.
America never trusted Jerry Ford again. He flailed about on economic matters, wrestling alternately with inflation and recession. A gifted athlete, his public stumbles boosted the successful career of comedian Chevy Chase and embarrassed us. A plain mid-Western speaker, Ford’s sometimes garbled syntax opened him up to gaffes that made it appear he didn’t understand foreign policy. All this, but first of all his unexpected, sudden reversal on a Nixon pardon (and lack of press preparation and Congressional consultation) made possible the unlikely presidential candidacy of a Georgian peanut farmer who carried his own suitcase. Jimmy Carter engaged the nation with the simple promise that he would always tell America the truth.
Carter might not have been elected had Ford not broken trust with the American people so early in his presidency, at Haig’s urging.
Follow me a few more steps into this political fantasy of Jerry Ford elected to his own presidential term in 1976: recall that he had barely vanquished Ronald Reagan that summer for the GOP nomination, leaving the defeated Reagan a strong candidate for the subsequent 1980 nomination. Elected to his own term, though, a full Ford presidency probably would have resulted in a Democratic win in 1980. Twelve years of the Presidency in one party’s hands usually results in a turnover to the other party, in this case the Democrats.
Would America have seen President Edward Kennedy take the oath in January 1981? Possibly; but regardless of either nominee we certainly would have been spared a President Ronald Reagan. The outgoing President Ford likely could have controlled the levers of his own party to prevent the 1980 Reagan nomination from ever happening.
And an America without a Reagan Presidency would be a vastly different America today, wouldn’t it? I submit: a much better one.
No Reagan Presidency means no Bush Vice Presidency, which means no GHWB Presidency. Which means no Fortunate Son, beholden to and manipulated by Nixon leftovers Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.
So raise a glass to the shade of Al Haig, wherever he resides: forger of America’s destiny with one swift strike of his smith’s hammer against the iron will of Jerry Ford’s promise to his country, on the anvil of executive integrity. For better or for worse, no one not elected President did more with a single act to create the circumstances we find ourselves mired in today.
The legacy of America’s Hephaestus, Alexander Haig: an unaccountable Executive; Ronald Reagan’s presidency; and the disastrous reach into the twenty-first century of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, returned from the never-extinguished wreckage of the Nixon years to shape America’s destiny as their own.