Washington — Gen. Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. is used to having bullets - real and rhetorical - zinging around him. If it wasn't in Korea or Vietnam, it was in Washington, where the political ammunition never seems to run out. Never one to fear a skirmish, he is relying on his experience as a soldier, statesman, and corporate executive to win the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Haig certainly has on-the-job experience. He spent 37 years in the Army as a combat officer in Korea and Vietnam, a staff officer at West Point and the Pentagon, Army vice-chief of staff, and NATO commander.
He also knows his way around the corridors of power in Washington. Under President Nixon, Haig first served as a top aide to Henry Kissinger at the National Security Council. He participated in the reorganization of the NSC and in Mr. Nixon's efforts in 1972 to negotiate an end to the Vietnam war and secure the return of American prisoners of war. During the period surrounding Nixon's resignation, Haig, as White House chief of staff, kept the wheels of government turning.
He became the chief executive officer of United Technologies Corporation after his retirement from the Army in 1979. Less than two years later he accepted President-elect Reagan's call to serve as secretary of state. But after a lifetime of succeeding against hostile forces, Haig finally succumbed to enemies within. He resigned after only 18 months, a tenure marked by acrimonious encounters with Mr. Reagan's top advisers.
Thus the real question for Haig, and for Republicans looking for a can-win candidate, is this: Could Alexander Haig - the can-do military man used to giving and receiving orders - operate effectively in the relatively messy world of politics, where compromise and pragmatism and even occasional deference must be part of the White House plan of the day?
Haig was born in 1924 in a well-to-do Philadelphia suburb, the son of a rising lawyer. The three children were enrolled in parochial school, a maid bustled around the house, and summer vacations were spent at the beach. Haig says, ``I was born into a family with expectations.''
Tragedy struck when Haig's father died after a long illness. There was no insurance or savings to sustain Regina Anne and the three children, but a well-to-do uncle stepped in and picked up the burden of subsistence. ``At the age of 10, it was evident to me that whatever I would expect from life I'd have to hone out myself,'' Haig says.
He started earning extra cash by distributing fliers for a local grocery and then held newspaper and magazine routes. As a high school sophomore, he switched from a private to a public school to ease the family's financial burden.
Recognizing his financial limitations, he set his sights on the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he could get a top-flight education at no cost. He failed to get the necessary congressional appointment on his first try, but succeeded the next year, 1943.
Haig was not the model student. He was bright, but he was not ready for the highly disciplined environment.
``He liked to play,'' says Haig's West Point roommate, Homer Perry Gainey Jr. ``His mind was on a whole lot of other things [besides academics], some of it very foolish.'' On one occasion, Haig was severely punished after he was caught sneaking off the base to a nearby tavern. Recalling the stiff price Haig paid, Mr. Gainey says, ``He accepted that punishment with grace and didn't lose his sense of humor. The more I was around him the more respect I developed.''
Haig came close to flunking out of West Point, Gainey says. If he had a tremendous capacity as a quick study, he also had a tendency to lose focus.
``I was never in danger; I just never worked too hard,'' Haig says. When asked why he seemed to have difficulty focusing on academics at West Point, Haig smiles. ``It was very simple,'' he says. ``I had matured without a father. And I was very much of a free spirit. ... When I got to West Point, it was a transition of some agony for me to have to go into the discipline and the hazing.''
In graduate school years later, Haig's academic performance improved. He received a master's degree in international relations from Georgetown University in 1961. ``I think those with Irish blood in them mature later than a lot of others,'' he says.
If Haig failed to distinguish himself at West Point, his subsequent military career was another story. He first saw combat in 1950 in Korea, where he received three medals. One was in recognition of his performance when his tank platoon came under heavy machine gun fire.
``The tanks buttoned up and those exposed on the ground, including my boss, had no cover,'' Haig says. ``I climbed up on the tank turret, under fire, banged the hatch with my helmet..., and got the tank commander to direct the fire and suppress the machine gun.''
In 1966, while serving as a battalion commander with the 21st Infantry Division in Vietnam, he received the Distinguished Service Cross after North Vietnamese troops attacked his position ``in massive assaults.''
``I think it was probably the biggest battalion-size operation in the war in Vietnam,'' Haig says, ``and the results were absolutely, incredibly positive.'' Haig remembers that two American were killed, eight wounded in the operation, but Roger Morris, in his not-so-flattering biography, ``Haig: The General's Progress,'' writes of 17 dead and 102 wounded. Whatever the numbers actually were, Haig claims to have lost fewer men than any other battalion commander in the First Division.
He earned a Purple Heart when an enemy soldier killed himself detonating a grenade after Haig picked him up, wounding Haig in the eye.
To some, Haig's military background raises questions about how he would conduct foreign policy. But friends disagree with the perception that Haig, as a former general, would be overly prone to use military force.
``Anyone who gets shot at gains a certain appreciation for life,'' says Jack Cassidy, an Army buddy. ``You see death at pretty close quarters. ... He has a great appreciation of war, and the hardship and horrors that it causes. On that basis he would be very cautious ... in dealing with our foreign adversaries.''
Haig likes to spend his spare time at home, preferably reading a good book after a ``brisk three or four sets of [tennis] doubles'' with his favorite classical music filling the room. ``That's my idea of seventh heaven,'' he says.
His wife, Pat, whom he describes as a ``voracious reader and a voracious crossword-puzzle worker,'' quietly stands beside him at many functions. Though often expressionless in public, she is said by close friends to be more outgoing in private. The Haigs were introduced by Jack Cassidy while stationed in Japan. Pat was the daughter of a senior officer. According to Mr. Cassidy, the two hit it off immediately.
``I think perhaps Pat was looking for someone with a little more than just the military,'' Cassidy remembers. ``He was a little different from the average Army officer. ... I think it perhaps has to do with quickness, very quick of wit. ... [He's] intelligent in a common-sense kind of way.''
The Haigs are not a particularly social couple, preferring quiet time at home to Washington's cocktail circuit.
The elder Haig son, Alexander, is a lawyer; the younger, Brian, an Army major. Daughter Barbara, their youngest, works for the Endowment for Democracy.
As Reagan's first secretary of state, Haig focused his concern on international terrorism, worked on normalizing relations with the People's Republic of China, and held talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and NATO officials. He took a primarily pro-Israel stand on Mideast issues and tried to encourage an international code of conduct based upon the rule of law.
Haig's problems with the White House staff began on Inauguration Day. In contrast to the wide praise he received while running the Nixon White House, Haig has been accused by some critics of running the State Department with a hot temper and a continuous air of crisis management. Some even speculated that he had experienced some sort of personality change as a result of bypass heart surgery.
``His points were always very good,'' says a former State Department aide. ``It was the way he made them. They thought he was too pushy.'' Aside from the personality clashes, the aide said some White House acrimony came from supporters there of Vice-President George Bush who viewed Haig as a possible future contender for the presidency. Haig became so frustrated by the turf battles that he suggested Reagan find another secretary of state. Eventually, the President agreed.
Even so, Haig says he is a strong Reagan supporter. Having said that, he admits he is also a strong critic of Reagan's administration. He rails against what he calls the ``political hacks'' Reagan has surrounded himself with. Just because they can get you elected doesn't mean they can run the country, Haig says. His time in the administration also left him with a distaste for unqualified conservatives in policymaking positions.
``To ... pick up the phone and call this department or that department and get a knee-jerk conservative answer does not serve the purpose of conservatism. It serves to discredit it because it ultimately will fail,'' Haig says, getting angry. ``That kind of ideological religiosity ... is the first excess that will do you in.
``An administration is best served when it has a divergence of views so the president isn't always set with knee-jerk, set-pattern ideological solutions to problem solving,'' he adds.
Haig opposed the reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers and is extremely critical of the administration's handling of the budget and trade deficit. He doesn't try to hide his contempt for an inconsistent foreign policy that he charges confuses and frustrates American allies worldwide. As Haig would tell it, he is running for president, like a good soldier, because his country needs him.
``I am generally concerned about the future of America, he says. ``Not only in foreign affairs and peacekeeping, but in terms of the values which have made America the unique bastion of freedom that it is. ... My life has been a preparation for such a thing in substantive terms, not political, and ... therefore I had an obligation to do it.''
As president, Haig says he would try to hold the defense budget to the rate of inflation to help reduce the deficit, but he generally opposes a tax increase. He would focus on meaningful international economic summits, ``not just another photo opportunity,'' and work to reduce third-world debt. He supports a line-item veto and investment-related tax incentives to help the depressed energy sector. Reducing acid rain would be a top environmental priority. He opposes protectionism and supports revitalization of America's maritime industry.
Though he stands low in preference polls, Haig is optimistic. ``I still remain confident that ... as November 1988 approaches, there is going to be greater and greater emphasis on the qualifications of the man, his experience, his demonstrated performance, and his ability to cope with a number of unprecedented challenges here at home and abroad.''