When Reagan was shot, who was ‘in control’ at the White House?

President Ronald Reagan the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981.

President Reagan had been in office only 70 days when John Hinckley Jr.’s shot cut him down outside the Washington Hilton.

Vice President George H.W. Bush was on a plane over Texas, without secure voice communication. I was then national security adviser and in the middle of a rare midday lap swim when my driver pulled me out of the University Club pool by my hair and rushed me the few blocks back to the White House. Our car nearly collided with one that was speeding White House chief of staff Jim Baker and counselor Ed Meese to the hospital.

Within hours of the shooting, as doctors struggled to save the president and reporters clamored for information, Secretary of State Alexander Haig repeatedly insisted — wrongly — that he was in charge of the federal government.

“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so,” Haig explained to reporters in the White House press room, apparently forgetting that the House speaker and the Senate’s president pro tempore come before the secretary of state in the line of succession. And then, in a dozen words that would become famous, he said, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House.”

In the 30 years since, that blurted declaration has become a classic Washington moment — and one that would end Haig’s own presidential suitability. A powerful Cabinet secretary had made a shocking mistake during a national crisis that demanded he display calm and command.

The inside story of that moment, however, is both more mundane and more worrisome.

Haig’s outburst had less to do with the day’s pressures and more to do with an acrimony toward his Cabinet-level peers that had been building for months.

Within every Situation Room of every White House, there are struggles for power, control and territory, and clashes of personality and decision-making style. When crisis erupts, as it inevitably does for each president, and as it did on March 30, 1981, those conditions can affect how smoothly the top tier of the executive branch functions. That is why a president has a crisis-management plan in place on Inauguration Day, to make clear who is supposed to do what. As national security adviser, I was responsible for putting together that plan for the Reagan White House.

Haig, who died in 2010, had been jockeying for greater power since being nominated. I had been trying to work with him. It was a notable bit of messiness in an otherwise tidy transition. Reagan prized collaboration and detested bickering, and I had decided early on that I would delay and defer to avoid having any internal warfare go public.

But important disagreements kicked down the road have a way of coming back to bite you. Haig had been objecting so vociferously to any National Security Council structure or crisis plan for so long that we barely had one in place when the president was shot.

On the day Hinckley fired at Reagan, there were other matters brewing — 12 million Polish workers had gone on strike against communism and the Soviets were threatening an invasion, and Soviet submarines were lurking closer than usual to the East Coast.

As the president was readied for surgery, I herded the principals into the Situation Room to ensure privacy and security. I grabbed my battery-powered tape recorder, placed it on the table and, implementing crisis management, opened the discussions and recorded nearly six hours of proceedings. That violated tradition and rules, but the deliberations on that day of national crisis required an accurate record.

The recorder was not hidden. It captured the reaction of senior administration officials all afternoon, including after Haig stormed into the press room and said he was in charge of the government.

“That’s a mistake!” one yelled.

“What’s this all about?” demanded Treasury Secretary Don Regan. “Is he mad?”

“He’s wrong! He doesn’t have such authority,” said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

When Haig and I returned a few minutes later to the Situation Room, he continued picking fights about his role, even as other top aides tried to figure out whether Hinckley was a lone wolf or part of a coordinated attack requiring them to raise the nation’s threat level.

In the days after the election, I had assumed that Haig and I could cooperate smoothly. We both had worked in the Nixon administration on foreign policy and other matters, and so I proposed that we install a hot line for urgent matters directly between each other’s desks; when the red phone rang, each would pick up.

We met often during the transition. Haig presented me with a draft document for the organization of the administration’s foreign policy process. I read through it carefully over the next days and returned it to him, noting that it would not work — he basically staked claim to all activity outside the territorial-waters limit of 12 miles.

Haig’s draft also put him in charge of managing and coordinating the executive branch crisis mechanism. That role traditionally had been assigned to the national security adviser, who has proximity to the president and is best situated to coordinate all the information streaming in during a national security crisis from the Defense and State departments, the CIA, FBI, the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Sensing that open opposition would lead to damaging arguments, I waited until the inauguration was over. That very afternoon, I called a meeting among Haig, Baker, Meese and myself to present Haig’s latest proposals. Baker’s first remark on the memo was: “Why, what you propose here would give you control over all foreign policy matters; that does not work. The president has that authority.” It was the reaction I expected: identical to my own.

The meeting ended without a decision, and the result was a struggle over foreign policy organizational structure that lasted the better part of 1981.

But what could not wait was a decision about crisis management.

Again, there was argument; Haig wanted to control the process. This was clearly impossible — the State Department, though filled with experienced professionals, is functionally and institutionally incapable of managing a process that requires central coordination among agencies. Bureaucratic habit alone would impede it.

I kept pressing, but flak and leaks had begun, and the decision about procedure was delayed again and again. Privately, Haig was already suggesting that he might quit, saying decisions were being made without his input. Reagan was displeased. There had to be a way to resolve the matter.

I suggested to the president that he appoint Bush to head the crisis-management team, with the national security adviser and his staff actually doing the managing. This seemed an ideal solution — Bush was experienced in foreign affairs and intelligence matters, had served as a member of Congress and was a man I had known well for 15 years. He would be easy to work with, cooperative and a leader. Most important, he outranked Haig in the line of succession. The president readily agreed and signed a “Decision Memorandum” on March 24, allowing us finally to move on.

On the morning of March 27, 1981, my red phone rang at 10:12. After discussing a few matters — a French decision to sell wheat to the USSR, our own grain embargo against the Soviets, Saudi Prince Fahd, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and theater nuclear forces — Haig turned to crisis management.

He began a long tirade, becoming more agitated as he progressed: It was “mind-boggling, ludicrous,” he had gone to Capitol Hill and “got sandbagged.” He’d called the president to tell him that a Washington Post story was “fallacious” in portraying him as blindsided by Reagan’s decision; he, Haig, had been unaware of a crisis management decision, reread the story and called the president again at 5 p.m., had called Meese and Baker. He said to me that he “was used, the president was used, he will pay the price. . . . The dialectic has begun to move; they can kick me until there’s no blood.”

While we were speaking, I consulted my notes of a few days earlier, when Haig had called me to discuss crisis management and tersely had described Meese, Baker and White House aide Michael Deaver as “a three-headed monster.” Without quoting these words back to him, I pointed out that he and I had been discussing structures even during the transition, that we had met on the afternoon of the inauguration and it was decided that planning must go back to the drawing board, that this was a decision by the president himself. He would not be calmed.

I never shared what Haig said to me privately on numerous occasions, and nothing in this telling is intended to disparage the character of a fine public servant. My personal notes on meetings and conversations are extensive, and there are many verbatim quotes.

The president’s decision about crisis management came in the nick of time — just six days after Reagan signed it, he was shot. Near-chaos reigned in the press room that day; there was confusion and disorder in and around Baker’s office, and shouting and general uproar among the staff. Press secretary Jim Brady had been badly wounded as well.

In the hours before the vice president returned from Texas to Washington, Haig contested not only the control of the White House all afternoon, but asserted that he was in charge of the national command authority, Weinberger’s function as defense secretary, and repeatedly insisted — eventually and erroneously in front of the cameras as he and I stood at the press room lectern — that he was “next in line” in the order of presidential succession.

“Let me ask you a question, Cap,” Haig asked Weinberger afterward, as captured on my tape. “Is this [Soviet] submarine approach, is that what’s doing this, or is it the fact that the president’s under surgery?”

“Who’s doing what, Al?” Weinberger asked.

“That we are discussing whether or not to put the NEACP bird up in the air,” Haig said, referring to the airborne command center, which Weinberger and I had agreed should not be launched. Haig then began arguing about Weinberger’s order to have 200 nuclear bomb crews move closer toward their planes or ready rooms, after the defense secretary was told that the Soviet subs were now close enough to send a nuclear warhead into Washington in less than 11 minutes.

Haig suggested it involved a change in the Defcon, or Defense Condition; it did not.

“I’m discussing it from the point of view that at the moment, until the vice president actually arrives here,” Weinberger said, “the command authority is what I have . . . and I have to make sure that is essential that we do everything that seems proper.”

At that point Haig exploded. “You’d better read the Constitution!”

Weinberger was incredulous. “What?”

Haig laughed. “You’d better read the Constitution!”

What Haig seemed not to understand was that the crisis was not a constitutional one, concerning who was in charge or in control of anything; the crisis was the shooting of the president, who lay near death in a hospital.

But the procedures Reagan approved after the prolonged dispute were put in motion. My tapes and notes demonstrate without question that there was no chaos in the Situation Room — nor was there any among the senior staff members at the hospital. There were indeed several arguments, but they were one-sided and, wisely, were ignored as we went on with the tasks at hand.

When the vice president returned hours later, he quietly assumed command.

Richard V. Allen was chief foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan from 1977 to 1980 and was his national security adviser during his first term. He is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

 
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