The analects of Alexander Haig

the Master wholly eschewed: he took nothing for granted, he was never over-positive, never obstinate, never egotistic." Down through history, men of heroic mien have been stepping forward to say "I'm in control here" and going down in the history of books as heroes. Secretary of State Alexander Haig is of heroic mien, and has been stepping forwrd to say, "I am in control here," but he's about to go down in the history books as a peacock strutting off a cliff.What's wrong with the picture?

It's partly his tactics and timing, of course. Even before he was in office as secretary of state, Haig had established that he was a "natural" as a President's deputy for foreign policy. But then he sought to clarify all those situational ambiguities, to pose in writing jurisdictional questions in that in the nature of things can only be answered, "it depends."

Especially in a crisis, the President cannot delegate real power to someone who doesn't understand about not crossing bridges until you come to them. So Mr. Reagan wisely complicated the crisis management machinery, figuring that an argument between George Bush and Al Haig was more likely than Al Haig's unfettered judgment to illuminate the President'sm options.

The secretary of state, described by one of his staff as a "wounded lion," then roared into the vacuum he thought was created by the President's gunshot wound and the Vice-President's absence from Washington. There wasn't a vacuum, so he just looked foolish -- and, on TV, uptight as well.

But the issue here goes deeper than clumsy tactics and botched timing. The problem for any overt take-charge guy in this country is that the United States of America is by constitutional design a nobody-in-charge society.

The three branches of government, the federal structure, the checks and balances we all learned about in high school civics, are supposed to make leadership collective. We don't trust any one leader's instinct; if several leaders agree on a line of action in a crisis, we'll follow it -- as long as we sense that there were people in on the decision who didn't havem to say "yes, sir" when the President spoke.

Harry Truman assembled an impressive array of talent at Blair House before deciding to stop the Soviet-backed drive into South Korea in 1950. John F. Kennedy led us through the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with a well-advertised ExComm, 14 people with names and faces and public reputations who were overtly consulted every step of the way. Lyndon Johnson pared the circle of people effectively consulted about the war in Vietnam to a few advisers who had forgotten to ask "Why?" -- and lost the people's support for the enterprise.

Richard Nixon's trouble was essentially that he really thought election to the presidency placed him in charge, entrusted to him the unreviewed exercise of power, beyond the law if "national security" required that. Our constitutuional arrangements, which seem so peculiar to most observers in other polities, checked and balanced him out of the White House.

Nixon's most useful assistant in his darkest days was General Al Haig. Can it be that he didn't get the message? For the record, and for the next time, the message is this:

When a leader steps forward and says, "I am in control here," we the people react instinctively, out of 200 years' experience with the management of pluralism.It's that simple: "I am in control here" is an un-American thing for an American leader to say -- especially if he doesn't smile, and looks as if he means it.

"The Master said, if the ruler himself is upright, all will go well even though he does not give the orders. But if he himself is not upright, even though he gives orders, they will not be obeyed."

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