Although the White House has belatedly ordered administration officials to stop assaulting Secretary of State Alexander Haig in order to preserve his effectiveness abroad, the Anti-Haig campaign has ideological roots that have nothing to do with his conduct after the shooting of President Reagan. Its origin is his hard anti-communist policy, especially his move to save El Salvador.
At issue is more than Haig's sudden dash from the White House Situation Room to the newsroom upstairs to reassure an agonized nation the afternoon of March 30. The irritated Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, worried about his own authority, and confirmed White House concern about Haig as a team player. The news media promptly put Gen. Haig in the uniform of Capt. Queeg, on the brink of lunacy.
This anti-Haig has many earmarks of past attacks on any high official in any administration willing to condemn communist aggression. The most recent victim was Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser. Before that, in the early Vietnam War days, the victim was Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
"The press is trying to do a real job on Al Haig," one White House aide told us. That indictment represents a sharp about-face dong their own "real job on Al Haig" the past two months. They changed only when the battering of Haig endangered U.S. foreign policy.
What startled White House aides was incessant repetition over network television Monday afternoon of the brief segment of Al Haig in the White House press room. Along with the president's own doctors, he had no idea whether a national calamity was at hand. When he heard deputy, White House press secretary Larry Speakes unable to answer a question about military alert, Haig rushed to face the press.
Haig was understandably overwrought. He was, therefore, less than precise in attempting to say he was doing all that could be done in the absence of both president and vice president. That lent itself to easy distortion. Television commentators said flatly Haig had confused the legal succession, putting himself third instead of fifth. Worse, they appeared to be using that segment ot plant the idea that Haig was expliting the assassination attempt to further himself.
Such treatment is not unique for Haig. Brzezinski was the constant target of the news media, particularly after speaking out against Soviet aggression in Africa. The attack at home mirrored the savage assault on him in the Soviet press. Moscow's propaganda barrage against Haig, following his hard line against communist expansion in El Salvador, has not matched the anti-Brzezinski poison; but it far exceeds Kremlin criticism of Cyrus Vance and Edmund Muskie. Again, attacks at home coincided with the Soviet abuse. a
The undermining of Haig's prestige abroad began during controversy over crisis management. Evidence was the statement attributed over television to a Middle Eastern diplomat -- believed within the administration to be an Israeli official, but not ambassador Ephraim Evron -- that Haig's usefulness on his current trip to the Mideast had become questionable.
The degenerative process was hastened in the hours after the assassination attempt by administration officials. "Haig has mortally wounded himself," one official outside the White House told us. An official from another department said privately that Haig had affronted most Cabinet members gathered in the Situation Room "because he insisted on taking over."
Yet, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III at the hospital had designated Haig as his White House contact point. As secretary of state, Haig has clear legal Cabinet precedence. As a career military officer, he understands military communications, alert readiness and command and control; Weinberger has spent only two months at the Pentagon.
Baker and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III have seen to it that anti-Haig propaganda from the administration will stop. Belatedly, they are alarmed at the implications of a denatured chief diplomat.
But the media present a larger problem for Haig. He was first selected for public flogging during his Senate confirmation hearings. The role enlarged when Haig lost to Bush as crisis manager and played his cameo role in the March 30 drama. But his crusade against communist expansion seems to be the real reason that, like Brzezinski and McNamara, Haig is fit for flogging.