At historic junctures, Alexander Haig held America's reins

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate exit to “I am in control” when Ronald Reagan was shot, Gen. Haig is the only American to become proxy president twice. His own presidential aspirations landed with a thud.

AP Photo/File
In this Jan. 4, 1973 file photo, President Nixon, right, congratulates Gen. Alexander Haig after presenting him with the Distinguished Service Medal at the White House. Joining the ceremony, from left, Secretary of State William Rogers, Presidential Adviser Henry Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

Gen. Alexander Haig never officially became president, but his influence at key moments of post-Vietnam US history assured his reputation as a controversial but often effective power-broker who held the country’s reins twice – once by proxy, once by sheer will.

The Philadelphia-born Haig, a Vietnam War hero, came off as both political pro and power-hungry at two key junctures: the Watergate scandal and the assassination attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan.

Known for “haigravations” such as “saddle myself with a statistical fence,” Haig correctly predicted that his decision, as secretary of state, to supersede constitutional succession after the shooting of Mr. Reagan to wrongly declare to the press, “I am in control here,” would become the third paragraph of his obituary.

His intercession in the waning months of the Richard Nixon presidency as chief of staff earned Haig higher plaudits. He is credited with keeping the White House afloat as Nixon’s despondency grew under the 1974 impeachment threat that drove him from office. “[Haig] was the president toward the end,” wrote William Saxbe, a Nixon biographer.

Before his rise to power and brushes with the Oval Office, Haig laid the groundwork for his political career in Korea and Vietnam. Reads his official Army citation in reference to a bloody two-day battle at Ap Gu in March 1967: “When two of his companies were engaged by a large hostile force, Colonel Haig landed amid a hail of fire, personally took charge of the units, called for artillery and air fire support and succeeded in soundly defeating the insurgent force."

Having tasted the presidency twice, the mercurial Haig made a run for the office in 1988, but came in last in Iowa before withdrawing from the New Hampshire primary. He called himself “the darkest of the dark horses” in the race.

Haig died Saturday in Baltimore.

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