THERE EVIDENTLY was a certain method to Secretary of State Alexander Haig's public challenge of a presidential decision to repose "crisis management" in the hands of a committee headed by Vice President Bush. He seems to have had in mind, among other things, gathering to himself the crisis authority that President Eisenhower conferred on his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. His bid, however, was widely perceived, or presented, at the White House as the latest in a series of increasingly assertive reaches for primacy in running foreign policy -- and not only foreign policy. Elements of the White House staff, needless to say, have not exactly been shrinking violets in this struggle for power.
Thus was precipitated the first real crisis of the Reagan administration, and President Reagan, not the vice president, had to manage it. He accomplished at least the immediate part of the job yesterday, making the Bush appointment stick and keeping a plainly restive Haig on board.
In a sense, the source of the difficulty is Mr. Haig himself. He is an unusually driving man who seeks not only the substance of power, which would likely flow to him anyway on account of his superior experience and prestige, but also the forms of power -- committee chairmanships and the like. Even while his bid for formal leadership in "crisis management" was being declined, he was taking over the talks with Japan on auto imports -- though trade policy is conspicuously an area where the domestic and foreign pressures involved can only be resolved at the White House level.
In his two months as secretary of state, Mr. Haig has evidently felt he had to spend an uncommon amount of his energy and of his standing among the White House staff on turf battles. President Reagan's regular insistance, repeated yesterday, that Mr. Haig is his principal foreign policy formulator, adviser and spokesman has not ended the matter for Mr. Haig -- nor apparently for everybody at the White House.
That leaves a difficulty squarely in Mr. Reagan's lap. He has allowed departmental jostling to be the mechanism for settling some issues of juridiction, but this will not do for them all. Crisis management is necessarily a function devolving from a presidential mandate. It is no rap on George Bush, however, to point out that someone who is not involved directly and deeply in daily operations will have to rely, as is the evident intention here, on the staff of the National Security Council, which stands in a certain rivalry to the State Department.
Mr. Reagan has made a virtue out of exercising power lightly. Part of his style has been precisely to put a known hard charger like Secretary Haig on his team. With that style, however, comes a requirement to exercise power firmly. That is what is worth looking closely at now.