"Politically there were no negatives. If anything, the president's physical resilience and good humor show that he is younger than his years, and even better equipped to lead the country than people imagined."
That view was expressed by President Reagan's chief policy counselor, Edwin Meese, the day after the assassination attempt. It probably assesses accurately the impact of the shooting on Reagan's personal standing.
Certainly there was no serious question of the passage of power after the shooting -- no crisis of legitimacy. Nor is there much doubt that the secretary of state, as the senior Cabinet official, should have announced, in the absence of the vice president, any decisions affecting national security.
Still, most of Washington believes that the aftermath of the shooting deepened divisions between the White House and Secretary of State Alexander Haig. That split, in turn, poses large questions as to the future of the whole administration.
The Haig controversy -- it has to be admitted even by those who admire and support the secretary -- starts with a curious change in a man once noted for self-control in public and the ability to please higher authorities. Haig now comes on as tense and confrontational. His cheeks redden easily. He jabs at questioners.
Assertive traits have already established Haig with some of the public and some of the press as a stereotyped villain -- the power-mad general usurping authority. He has also nettled Cabinet colleagues. The secretaries of treasury and commerce, for example, were upset that they were not consulted more extensively on preparations for the president's visit to Canada.
Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was annoyed when Haig, during his appearance in the White House press room after the assassination attempt, declared that "absolutely no alert measures are necessary at this time . . . ." The secretary of defense had made military dispositions that were at least technically in conflict with Haig's assertion. In deference to Weinberger's sensitivities, the White House then made it public that the National Command Authority had been arranged to run from the president and the vice president to the secretary of defense.
White house frictions, however, overshadow all other rumbles. Meese and White House Chief of Staff James Baker have repeatedly clipped Haig's wings in a semi-public way. They let the press know before Haig that crisis management was going to Vice President George Bush, not him. They leaked word that State would lose authority over preparation for presidential visits. They also put it about that Haig had asked for, and been refused, primacy of place in all interagency groups connected with foreign policy.
Even after the assassination attempt, when there was a deliberate effort to build public confidence in the secretary, signs of strain abounded. It was revealed that Haig had threatened to quit on the second day of his Senate confirmation hearings. It became known that, after the shooting Haig, instead of waiting to be invited, had himself proposed that he take the lead in the White House "situation room."
Both Haig and the White House claim that their differences do not touch policy. In fact, the discord transcends policy. The White House under Reagan, as under most previous presidents, is filled with people who want their man to do well -- cheerleaders. Naturally they like to emphasize the issues that show the president to good advantage -- first of all, cutting the budget; and second, a tough stance against Russia.
Haig, while not exactly soft on communism, believes in developing strength for the purpose of eventually reaching some kind of accord with Moscow. Thus his policy goes beyond rhetorical anti-communism. Moreover, he is bound to insist on the paramount importance of foreign policy, thus blurring the focus on the economy preferred by the president and most of his advisers.
If that analysis is correct, the White House and the secretary of state are on a collision course. The hope has to be that Haig will show more capacity to yield gracefully, while the White House comes to realize that he, far from being a cardboard general, is uniquely equipped to manage national security business.
For if Haig goes, there will be a blow to the president's image of genial harmony and managerial competence. The administration's claim to be different from recent predecessors will be shatttered. The new beginning will look like the same old story.