This essay was originally published in the December 29, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
Despite Democrats’objections, he taps the ex-general for Secretary of State
Acting as if he did not have a care in the world, Ronald Reagan might have been just another wealthy, leisured Californian doing his routine chores last week. He visited his tailor, barber and butcher, where he picked up two shopping bags of veal and beef from his private meat locker in the town of Thousand Oaks. To some 50 people who turned out to greet him, he remarked: “You mean to tell me a farmer doing his work is of this much interest?”
Reagan seemed remote indeed from the bustle of Washington, where his harried staff was trying to assemble a Cabinet. Reagan’s aides announced the most crucial and controversial appointment to date: General Alexander Meigs Haig Jr., 56, as Secretary of State. They also named Raymond James Donovan, 50, a New Jersey construction executive as Reagan’s nominee for Secretary of Labor. In addition, they were preparing a crash economic plan that Reagan is considering submitting to Congress within three weeks of his Inauguration; at a minimum, the program will put a freeze on federal hiring and cut spending sharply.
Reagan’s spokesmen insisted that the President-elect was very much in command even if not on the spot. He was keeping in touch by phone and making decisions. He announced one trip before the Inauguration: to Mexico to visit President López Portillo in early January. Beyond that, he had little to say. Explained his chief aide, Edwin Meese: “This is not a time in which you profitably make news. You don’t want to lock yourself into policy positions prematurely.”
Reagan still has five Cabinet posts to fill. One prospective appointment provoking a ruckus is that of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. A Denver attorney, Watt is leading a fight to open up more federal wilderness land to mining and oil drilling in Colorado and Wyoming. Reagan said in Watt’s defense last week: “I think he’s an environmentalist himself, as I think I am. He is fighting environmental extremists.”
What about women and blacks in the Cabinet? “Don’t keep score,” warned
Reagan, “until the whole thing is in.”
Jeane Kirkpatrick, professor of political science at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, is considered to be the front runner for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The leading candidate for the Energy Department is a man who wants to preside over its liquidation: James Burrows Edwards, an oral surgeon and former South Carolina Governor, who asks: “What good has the department really done? It hasn’t generated one calorie, not one B.T.U. of energy. Does it make sense to spend tax money for this?”
Of all the Cabinet appointees, Haig is expected to run into the most flak from Democrats, largely over his sometimes ambiguous role as White House Chief of Staff during the final embattled months of the Nixon presidency. He will also be closely questioned about his views of the world, which the New York Times thought so little known that it labeled him “vague Haig.” But Reagan has always been high on Haig, and when the Democrats promised to challenge the appointment, he figured he had no alternative but to stand and fight. Said Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, an adviser to Reagan: “We felt that we shouldn’t be intimidated by the confirmation process. We should send out some positive signals to the country and to the world.” Both Presidents Ford and Nixon had pressed for Haig’s appointment. So had Kissinger, who said of his onetime aide: “There is only one question to be considered: Is this man morally and intellectually qualified for the job? The answer is overwhelmingly yes.”
The appointment was generally applauded overseas. Said a senior British diplomat: “Haig was Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington’s first choice. He is in our view a highly intelligent, clear-headed and able man.” Added a top-ranking foreign policy adviser in Bonn: “He is extremely well equipped for the job, and for us, it is especially gratifying that he knows well every important European personality.” About the only dissent came, not surprisingly, from Moscow. An official with a worried expression groused: ‘This won’t help us improve things.” Muttered another: ‘Not good.”
Haig has all the pluses and minuses of what is called a “political general,” a man equally at home in the military and in politics. Brought up on Philadelphia’s Main Line and fatherless since ten, Haig
graduated 214th in his West Point class of 310. But after that his career was meteoric. Though he saw combat in Korea and
Viet Nam and was decorated for heroism, he made his biggest mark at various war colleges and in staff jobs where he showed a knack for handling people and grappling with the fine points of geopolitics. Kissinger then Nixon’s National Security Adviser, chose Haig for his staff and came to value him as his most trusted aide. Critics say Haig became much too loyal when, on Kissinger’s orders, he requested the FBI to put taps on the phones of 14 Government officials and three reporters, to try to discover how secret information was leaking to the press.
Nixon later told Watergate investigators: “I authorized the entire program.” For his services, Haig was jumped over 250 senior officers to become a four-star general.
After Nixon was forced to fire his top White House aides, he turned to Haig for the loyalty and competence he needed at a time when he was practically immobilized by Watergate. As White House Chief of Staff, Haig presided over the sinking Government with considerable grace and good humor and, though a military man, he was much less authoritarian than his predecessors. While many Democrats resented his role in trying to preserve Nixon’s presidency, Leon Jaworski, then special prosecutor, now completely exonerates him of any wrongdoing. Haig helped maintain staff morale and ensure that essential business was done in Nixon’s last days; he helped to ease Nixon out of office and prepare the transition to Ford.
Ford appointed him NATO commander, an ideal post for displaying his political, diplomatic and military talents. Haig was initially greeted with skepticism. “When I went to the White House,” he told European audiences, “the critics said: ‘My God, that man is much too military for such a political job.’ When I came to NATO, they said I’m too political for such a military job.” As it turned out, he was superbly right for the job, as the men and women under his command and virtually all European leaders now acknowledge. Demonstrating a quick mind, a prodigious memory and a forceful speaking style, he soon won over his detractors.
Voraciously absorbing news, Haig could give hourlong speeches without consulting notes. At one NATO meeting, he spoke for 45 minutes, then waited for all the questions to be asked while an aide scribbled them down. Not even glancing at the notes and pointedly dropping them on the floor, Haig replied to all the queries from memory and addressed each questioner by name. With his own staff officers, he would play top sergeant, staring them in the eyes, challenging them to think while drumming an index finger on his desk top. But when a NATO ambassador arrived, he assumed different body language, slouching in an overstuffed chair, communicating casually. He went out of his way to mingle with enlisted men, and after lunching on C rations in the field, he would change into a black tie for a diplomatic dinner without breaking stride. Says an officer who worked for him: “It constantly amazed me how he shifted gears.”
By skillful military management, Haig forged the various NATO members into a more cohesive fighting unit. He conducted more realistic maneuvers, with tanks and trucks squeezing through narrow village streets instead of rolling along the autobahns. Units were ordered to engage in simulated combat with no advance warning—a genuine test of readiness. Says one of Haig’s top commanders: “He revitalized NATO.” A British army general agrees: “As Supreme Commander, he was both impressive and persuasive. When Al Haig fixes those eyes on you and urges you to do this or that, there is virtually no way to refuse him without feeling you’ve let him down badly. He’s no hip-shooting cold warrior, either, but a tough realist, better than Vance or Muskie in dealing with the Soviets.”
Haig won the gratitude of the French by openly praising their independent nuclear force and supporting their African policies.
He played a key role in providing U.S. transport planes to carry French paratroopers to Zarïe to put down a rebellion supported by Cubans in Angola. At first there was some coolness between Haig and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. But that soon evaporated.
While at NATO, Haig became increasingly disenchanted with what he considered to be the overly accommodating policies of the Carter Administration toward the Soviet Union. In Haig’s view, this simply encouraged the Soviets to embark on further expansion. He publicly objected to Carter’s decision to cancel the neutron bomb. Rebuffing Democratic pressure to relieve Haig, Carter appointed him to a second two-year term. But in 1979, Haig began to take seriously all the European promptings to run for President and resigned from NATO to join the political fray.
On returning to the U.S., he was named president of one of the nation’s largest conglomerates, United Technologies Corp., and settled in Farmington, Conn., with his wife Patricia. But he was sidelined by a coronary bypass operation and had to shelve his political plans—not that he ever had much of a shot at the Republican nomination.
From all appearances, Haig should get along as well with Reagan as he did with Nixon. Like Reagan, he is alarmed at the rapid Soviet arms buildup and Soviet expansion in the Third World, though some critics worry about Haig’s knowledge of and flexibility toward the Third World generally. He has always had misgivings about SALT II and now opposes the treaty for putting limitations on U.S. cruise missiles but not on Soviet SS-20 missiles and Backfire bombers. Says a member of the National Security Council who served with Haig: “He isn’t a visceral opponent of negotiations with the Soviets, but he is skeptical about them, and he believes that you can’t get very far unless you’re negotiating from a position of strength.”
But Haig may diverge from his boss on some key issues. Highly praised by both the Israelis and the Egyptians, he is likely to want to pursue a more even-handed Middle Eastern policy than Reagan, whose campaign rhetoric suggested that he is a down-the-line supporter of current Israeli policies. Says a former NSC colleague: “I think Haig would try to follow the Kissinger attitude that he can have it both ways in the Middle East—a close Israeli relationship while cultivating the Arab world at the same time.” As a participant in the opening to China under the Nixon Administration, Haig can be expected to promote closer ties to China, but he would proceed cautiously in order not to increase Soviet fears about a Sino-American encirclement.
Haig would be the first military man to serve as Secretary of State since George Marshall. There is not much fear of having a “man on horseback” in the post, but there are nagging doubts about a man who may have ridden all too many horses. The chief charge against Haig is opportunism, that he is more devoted to power than to principle. A onetime NSC member says that he detects “signs of a certain vainglory. There is more hard work and dedication and method that go to his claim of competence than there is vision.” But Lincoln Bloomfield, a political scientist at M.I.T. who worked in the State Department for twelve years, welcomes Haig for his ability to “handle State’s insanely complex system and to break up bureaucratic paralysis.”
The reaction at State to Haig, in fact, is generally favorable; he is perceived as a tough boss who will stick up for his department. Says a senior analyst: “If he lives up to his billing, Haig ought to get this place jumping again. The department needs an energetic taskmaster.” Somewhat less certain is Haig’s ability to work with two other top officials who may be involved in the carrying out, if not the formulation, of the Administration’s foreign policies. One is Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s choice as Secretary of Defense. Says a senior federal official who knows both of them well:
“Weinberger is close to Reagan in a way that Haig never can be. But Haig is a professional in national security in a way that Weinberger never can be.” Another potential adversary is Richard Allen, who is Reagan’s expected choice as National Security Adviser, a function that the President-elect has promised will not become a rival to the Secretary of State. Indeed, Allen favored a less dominating personality at State, like William Casey, whom Reagan tapped as CIA director. In Haig, says a transition aide, Allen faces a “hell of an infighter. If he wants to, Haig will have Allen for lunch.”
Barring the discovery of some “smoking gun” on the still secret Nixon tapes that the Democrats have requested from the National Archives, Haig is expected to be confirmed. He faces some rough questioning, but the Democrats are also wary of a backlash if they press Haig too hard. Says a Democrat who will be involved in the hearings: “Americans are sick of Watergate. The Democrats are running a risk.”
At issue, really, is not Haig’s performance during Watergate, but the qualities that he would bring to the job of Secretary of State and his views on foreign policy. At the very least, his record demonstrates that he would provide something that many Senators on both sides believe has been conspicuously lacking in American foreign policy in recent years: a firm grasp of the power realities between East and West.