News of the resignation of Alexander Haig came here on a whisper. It seemed to float into the hall where the Democrats were meeting and then worked its way into the hallway and then sunk into the bones where deep down you find the world frightening. Even at meaningless events such as this, some things have meaning.
It is meaningful that the secretary of state resigns in the midst of a war in the Middle East. It is meaningful that a nation that never has been able to formulate a Middle East policy now does not even have a secretary of state -- just a former one and an acting one. It is meaningful that once again things seem to be out of control, and it is meaningful, still, how this administration does not understand how much it scares people.
Instead, the administration seems to feel that words are just words and even actions have no consequence. It conducts itself as if everything happens in a vaccum or that its words fall on one of those magic slates the kids have where you write something, pull up on the paper, and the words disappear.
It is this mentality that enables it simply to announce Haig's resignation and then nothing more -- no explanations for the American people. It is the same mentality that enables it to be so bellicose with the Soviets one moment, play nice with them the next, turn tough a bit later and then offer Brezhnev a chance to appear on American television -- just like Carol Burnett. It scraps SALT and then announces START, responds to Soviet initiatives with silence and does not seem to appreciate that it is not Brezhnev's cage that is being rattled, but our own. After all, some people take words seriously. At the very least, words set a mood.
Neither Reagan nor, for that matter, Haig, seem to appreciate that. With a war raging, now was not the time for Haig to submit his resignation -- nor the time for the president to accept it. Some things matter more than internal disputes about who gets to fly in what helicopter -- more than even fights over policy. What matters the most right now is bringing an end to the fighting in Lebanon and reassuring the world that America not only stands for peace, but has a policy to ensure it.
The world is nervous. It is no accident that at the moment in this country there is a rash of movements whose common denominator is a quest for personal safety. What the movements to freeze (or reduce or abolish) nuclear arms, control guns, rid the highways of drunk drivers, protect the enviroment and, of course, control crime, have in common is a an attempt to make the world safer -- to narrow the risk. To a whole lot of people it just seems that going out of the house is too risky a business.
That is not all. To many people the world not only seems more menacing, it really is. Prosperity, once taken for granted, no longer seems possible. An entire post-Depression generation that once assumed that the jobs and all the things that go with jobs, like housing, would always be there, are now learning the hard way that their assumptions might have been wrong. The safety nets have huge holes in them. Poverty seems closer to a whole lot of people. Unemployment is rampant, bankruptcies common and the value of real estate -- the only investment for many Americans -- has slipped. Few things are as depressing to a homeowner as a fading 'For Sale' sign across the street.
All this exacerbates a sense of insecurity, a sense that things are out of control. The resignation of Haig only adds to that feeling. Whether his complaints were real or imagined, whether he had real policy differences or did not, matters little. What really matters is that it seemed more important to the president and the people around him to pull the plug on Haig than it did to maintain some sort of continuity at the State Department.
The Haig resignation will produce reams of stories, all of them giving one inside version or another to explain what went on. Personal slights will be detailed and policy differences will be revealed. None of it will change the fact that in the middle of a crisis, both the secretary of state and the White House were engaged in what amounts to a game of inside baseball. It did not seem to concern them that no matter who won, the people once again would lose.