Alexander Haig 1924-2010

Alexander Haig, 85; soldier-statesman managed Nixon resignation

Alexander Haig, a retired Army general and adviser to three presidents, died Saturday of complications from an infection. He was 85.
By James Hohmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Retired Army Gen. Alexander Haig, who held influential positions in the U.S. military and government and who as White House chief of staff shepherded Richard M. Nixon toward peacefully resigning the presidency, died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications from an infection. He was 85.

Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter sent the four-star general to Europe as supreme commander of NATO. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state, a brief and stormy appointment in which he famously tried to assert command after the attempted assassination of the president. And Gen. Haig himself, a tall man with blue eyes who kept his chin-up military bearing long after he left the service, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

In a statement, President Obama said Gen. Haig "exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service."

Gen. Haig's influence peaked in his late 40s, during Nixon's last 16 months in office, when brewing developments in the Watergate scandal damaged and increasingly distracted the president. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously told Gen. Haig to keep the country together while he held the world together during one of the greatest constitutional crises in the nation's history. Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and many others, called Gen. Haig the "37 1/2 president."

Gen. Haig, untainted by the botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, took over as chief of staff in May 1973 from H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, who would spend 18 months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. When the public learned about the secret Oval Office taping system, which would eventually implicate Nixon in the coverup, Gen. Haig, as he acknowledged later, urged the president to destroy the tapes.

When Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Jaworski's predecessor, pursued his investigation too aggressively for Nixon's comfort, the president dispatched Gen. Haig in October 1973 to instruct the acting attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. "Your commander in chief has given you an order," Gen. Haig told him.

Ruckelshaus refused, quitting instead in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Although Gen. Haig vigorously defended the president, he realized the direness of the mounting evidence and arranged a series of meetings between Nixon, his attorneys and leading members of Congress to make Nixon understand that his position had become untenable in the summer of 1974.

Gen. Haig said he thought Nixon needed to make the final decision, but he "smoothed the way" by presenting resignation as the only serious option, according to the account of this period in journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's 1976 book "The Final Days." After the president broached the possibility of suicide, the authors noted, Gen. Haig ordered doctors to take away Nixon's tranquilizers and deny his requests for pills.

Then, on Aug. 1, 1974, Gen. Haig told Vice President Ford that he should prepare to assume the presidency. Critics said later that he brokered a deal that got Nixon a pardon in exchange for stepping down. Gen. Haig maintained that he never implicitly or explicitly made such an offer.

Gen. Haig stood on the White House lawn eight days later, on Aug. 9, when Nixon left town. The chief of staff had his arms folded, but he discreetly gave a thumbs-up to his disgraced boss.

Powerful mentors

Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. was born on Dec. 2, 1924, in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. He was 10 when his father, a lawyer, died of cancer and left the family $5,000 in life insurance money. Gen. Haig was the second of three children, but he assumed an important role in family matters as the oldest male.

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