It was 1950 and Alexander Haig was a 25-year-old aide-de-camp to General Edward “Ned” Almond, commander of the X Corps in Hungnam, North Korea. Almond was an ill tempered and demanding officer who had lost a son and a son-in-law to World War II. He had come to see his young aides, Haig among them, as surrogates for the fallen boys. Praise one minute, blistering attacks the next. “Why are you alive and they’re dead?” he’d bark at his junior officers.

Haig was responsible for administering Almond’s mess and headquarters billets, which included a tile bathtub that had taken some trouble to put together. In October, the Chinese crossed the Yalu and Almond’s forces evacuated Hungnam. Suddenly Haig remembered the bath, fretting, as he recalled it later, at the prospect of “a Chinese general taking a bath in General Almond’s tile tub!” On his own initiative, Haig returned to the villa, braving enemy fire. There he lobbed a grenade into the tub, assuring that “no commissar would ever wallow in it.” Then back again through more gunfire to rejoin his commanding officer.

There was a period when Al Haig enjoyed telling that story over and over in his engaging, slightly self-deprecating way. It helped take some of the pressure off working for Henry Kissinger, which Haig did during Richard Nixon’s first term. This time the battle was at home, in the office, though the flak wasn’t much lighter. Haig would be ducking into a car only to find Henry stopping him, polishing the single star on Haig’s shoulder, and telling him in a patronizing little way that if he was “good” he’d get another one like it. Haig would smile, register it, then stare hard off into space for a moment, working his jaw and neck back and forth in a sharp, tight motion. One observer, watching the motion for the umpteenth time, said it was almost as if the man were trying to straighten his tie with no hands.

Haig could contend with Kissinger’s jibes—and other slights—because he knew his skills as a subordinate were more sophisticated than the mere ability to put up with such treatment. The trick, as he learned under Almond, was to match indulgence with initiative. And initiative, as he learned through many intervening years of staff work, meant going the extra mile that made one indispensable. When that was accomplished, the real initiative could begin: the kind where you controlled people and paper well enough to put your own spin on the ball.

In that sense, the “loyal Al” tag is misleading, as are the battle stories and macho manner. Haig looks the parts assigned him, be it trusty toady, carrying out the orders of his commander-in-chief, or magnetic ramrod leader, holding the troops (or aides) together through force of will. But try listening instead of looking. Listen to the way he uses words in public, the way he frames his answers (“Not in the way you contexted it, Senator”). Now review his career and see if a different, stranger truth doesn’t emerge. The curious thing is, beyond the sense of authority (standard for a West Pointer), Haig is not really cut from the traditional military mold at all; nor from that of the “soldier-statesman,” who melds the virtues of military and political life as George C. Marshall did. Haig has wrapped himself in Marshall’s mantle, and indeed he does fuse both worlds. But unlike Marshall, what he takes from each realm is the same: a bureaucratic mentality that undermines the values of both pursuits.

For the soldier-bureaucrat, the old military values—honor, duty—are important only to the extent that they serve the post-war “managerial” ethic. The ground rules for the new game are simple. What matters is mastering office politics and “nuancing” (Haig’s verb) all the angles. When the angles don’t point in your direction, redraw them. When your moral compass starts acting like a weather vane, refuse, as Haig did during his confirmation hearings, to make “value judgments,” at least until you’ve consulted with your attorneys. It’s this game, now so much a part of life in the U.S. government, that explains why Alexander Haig survives.

Playing His Bedroll

Al Haig didn’t come from a military family. He grew up on the middle-class Manayunk Line in Philadelphia, the son of an attorney who died of cancer when Haig was ten. His mother was left with three kids and very little money. Haig went to Notre Dame for a year, then West Point. His brother Frank became a Jesuit priest and settled in at Loyola College in Baltimore (where Haig is now a trustee). His Catholic upbringing is important in understanding Haig’s hierarchical mind. During his first press conference as secretary of state he described his role as that of the “vicar” of American foreign policy.

Haig’s first way station en route to the vicarage was in Japan, where he served under Douglas MacArthur. Having graduated 214th out of 310 at West Point in 1947, he might not have expected to end up on MacArthur’s small personal staff, but even then Haig had a certain job-placement knack. MacArthur’s staff was composed of very senior generals and a few very junior infantry officers. Haig and Jonathan Ladd, later commander of the Green Berets, would fetch maps and draw up schedules—routine office work but heady business nonetheless for young men who had missed the war. When Chiang Kai-shek evacuated mainland China, Haig and Ladd got the chance to go down to Taiwan, where they met the Generalissimo himself. One of the principal officers at the American command post on Taiwan was General Alonzo Fox. In 1950, Haig married his daughter Patricia.

“There was nothing all that special about him, nothing brilliant—no shaft of light like that on MacArthur as a young man, or Marshall,” Ladd recalls. “He was just a good, competent soldier who learned how to put up with extremely demanding officers.” One story has it that when MacArthur’s forces landed at Inchon it was Haig who waded ashore with the general’s bedroll aloft, catching pneumonia in the process and finding, fittingly enough, that the great man had no intention of sleeping there.

With the end of the Korean War came the birth of a new kind of army. “Cincinnatus,” a pseudonym for an army officer, writes in his recent book, Self-Destruction, that in the wake of the war ” ‘Duty, honor, and country’ (the West Point credo) was replaced by the need to be in the right place at the right time. Careerism, rather than dedication to one’s men, was the way to get ahead.” If careerism, as James Fallows says in his forthcoming book National Defense, is “the desire to be rather than to do,” Haig typifies it. His ticket punching began in the 1950s: back to West Point as a tactical officer, a stint at the National War College, a master’s degree from Georgetown University.

Haig took the “Renaissance man” approach seriously. Most officers saw the War College year as a chance to play golf; to his credit, Haig studied. At Georgetown in 1962 he wrote a thesis in which he argued that presidents listened too often to the diplomatic perspective of the State Department, ignoring at their peril the “fact” that “the nation is confronted with a challenge which is essentially military in nature.” Haig was a 36-year-old major the—much older than most students—and, according to one classmate, a trifle condescending. Earlier he had belittled those in his class who thought the Bay of Pigs operation should never have been attempted. Kennedy’s real mistake, he argued, was foregoing a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

But it wasn’t strongly held views which drove Haig; it was the Washington advancement game, which he began playing in earnest in 1963. That year Joseph Califano, then general counsel to the Army, plucked him out of the obscurity of staff officer work to come on board as military assistant to Califano’s boss, Cyrus Vance, then secretary of the army. When Vance moved over to be deputy secretary of defense under Robert McNamara, Haig moved, too—one future secretary of state following another.

Once again, Haig showed a good sense of timing. This was the era of General Maxwell Taylor, the soldier-scholar, and young officers who had even tarried for a moment in the groves of academe were seen as some kind of magical new double threat. More important, the war in Vietnam was suddenly very big business. The dramatic escalation-500,000 soldiers and more—took place in just the years Haig was at the Pentagon, 1964-66. Haig was indefatigable; everyone said it. He was charged with conveying civilian views and plans to the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a courier of sorts. With so much going on, back and forth, that was a sensitive staff job. Like many jobs in the bureaucracy, it placed a premium on paper-routing skills, which Haig was quickly developing.

By the time Haig got to Vietnam for his requisite six-month stint—the only time he ever commanded troops—he was no ordinary colonel. When in May of 1967 Harry McPherson, a top Johnson aide, visited the III Corps Area, it was Haig who flew him around in a helicopter to view the newly cleared network of trenches built by the Viet Cong. Haig knew McPherson from the Pentagon; in fact he probably knew more hot-shot civilians than any colonel over there. So it was no big surprise when he didn’t stay longer. With his Distinguished Service Cross in hand he headed back to Washington.

Self-Service Escalator

The only problem was, the Pentagon wasn’t the right place anymore. By the summer of 1967 McNamara had soured on the war and the skeptics were in ascendancy. As Haig returned, the final touches were being put on the secret history of the war, which was later known as the Pentagon Papers. Haig found himself assigned to one of the committees making last-minute decisions about what to include. It was one of those impossible bureaucratic positions—whatever move he made was suddenly fraught with problems and potential enemies. Policy-makers were all over one another, splitting into camps, snappish. All of a sudden the Pentagon was no place for someone like Al Haig; the escalator was temporarily out of service. So he begged off and got out, escaping to West Point in time for “Beast Barracks,” the orientation session for plebes.

Haig’s year and a half at West Point, first as a regimental commander and later as deputy commandant, were described in 1973 when Lucian K. Truscott IV, a former cadet who came from an old and distinguished military family, wrote an article in the Village Voice attacking Haig’s petty bureaucratic mentality.

Attention to detail is a hallmark of life at West Point, but Haig went well beyond the norm. The first action he took upon joining the Third. Regiment was to issue an order that every cadet in the regiment would march with his fingers cocked squarely at the second knuckle, thumb running stiffly along the index finger pointing “like an arrow” to the ground, elbows rigidly locked. Like the civil servant who circulates a memo on the proper color-coding of briefing books, Haig saw the new hand position as a way of exerting control through minutiae —”a way of putting my signature on the regiment,” he later commented.

Truscott recalls, how several alleged pot smokers in the regiment were investigated and punished unofficially because Haig knew an official disciplinary, report would have to be routed through the Department of the Army, which would alert the Pentagon to the existence of Third Regiment pot-heads. No need for a red-flag on an otherwise stellar record of service. If you have that kind of problem among your cadets, why advertise it?

Haig handled any sign of dissent with an equally bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. In his third year, Truscott and a friend decided to challenge the rule requiring mandatory chapel. That meant going to the army’s inspector general, a right every cadet was reminded of by a notice attached to all Academy bulletin boards. But first they were sent to see Colonel Haig, who told them they shouldn’t fight it—the regulation was bigger than they were. If they didn’t like it, they should resign.

Truscott and three other cadets persisted, this time challenging mandatory chapel “donations.” By the following fall, Haig was deputy commandant, and in a style of office politics he was’ to employ to great effect in later years, he asked to see Truscott alone, preventing any substantiation:

“I’m going to do you another favor, Mr. T. See this green memo-routing slip here? I’m going to attach this green memo-routing slip to these requests and fire them back on. down to you in H-3 first thing tomorrow morning, that’s what I’m going to do. Do you a favor. What do you think of that?” Haig said.

Truscott didn’t think much of it, and asked that the requests go through channels as required by regulation. Haig didn’t want that. His reply was ominous:

“If these go up, Mr. T., you’ll leave the Commandant with no recourse but to eliminate you, all four of you, from the Academy. Do you understand that? You’re boxing him in, Mr. T., leaving him no choice.”

In mid-November, Truscott was informed that proceedings were underway to eliminate him from the Academy on “aptitude” grounds, though he ranked in the middle of the class on that score. Not long after, a federal appeals court banned mandatory chapel at all four service academies, citing the First Amendment. The Supreme Court unanimously refused to review the decision. According to Truscott, General Bernard Rogers, commandant at West Point in 1967-69 and now Haig’s successor at NATO, later told him that he knew nothing about his deputy’s activities: He was “flabbergasted” to hear what Haig had kept from him. Haig had always appeared to be so “completely loyal.”

The Butterfly Spy

Haig’s discomfort with dissenters and their threat to his hierarchical mind continued in later years. According to Garry Wills, he repeatedly complained to his brother the priest about Daniel Berrigan. Why didn’t the Jesuits throw him out? The army would have, Haig said. Recently Haig gave rein to similar feelings in an interview with a French newspaper when he complained of a “Jane Fonda on every doorstep” in the U.S.

That comment was made, as Wills points out, in the “authentic voice of Nixon paranoia,” which Haig began to learn and master during 1969. As a special assistant extraordinaire, Haig came to his National Security Council staff post well prepared (and well recommended—by Califano). But what helped him most were the specific players involved. Kissinger needed someone with strong links to the Pentagon, where all the NSC eggheads were deeply mistrusted. More important, around the White House he needed Haig’s hawkish words and his butch look, which appealed to Haldeman and the rest of the German Mafia. All of this kept Kissinger well enough buffered to spend time working his charms on the president.

Haig was “Stalin to Henry’s Lenin,” as former NSC staffer Roger Morris put it in his book, Uncertain Greatness. “If Kissinger was the theorist and politician of his coup—its outer symbol—Haig was its inner face. He was the organizer, the not-as-bright but painstaking administrator with time and attention for the details Kissinger spurned.” Early on in the. Nixon administration, that meant arranging “under orders” the wiretapping of 17 colleagues and journalists in a futile attempt to find leakers. To this day, Haig will not pass judgment on the morality of the practice, stressing in his confirmation hearings that the taps were legal at the time.

In earlier testimony before a congressional committee investigating the taps, Haig floated an old rumor to explain why the taps lasted so long and included so many: “In one instance, one of the people [under surveillance] was a very prime suspect for espionage activity.” Former New York Times reporter David Wise writes in his book American Police State that the man to whom Haig referred was Henry Brandon, a relatively conservative columnist for The London Sunday Times. Brandon is a staid, conventional member of the Washington journalistic establishment who boasts impeccable social credentials. As a pure piece of detective work, going after Brandon may have made sense. Because he seemed the last person in the world to be a foreign agent, Sherlock Holmes would have tagged him immediately as the prime suspect. In fact the source of “leaked” information in Brandon’s column was more than likely Kissinger himself. At any rate all is forgiven; Haig will now see quite a bit of Brandon and his wife Muffle on the Washington party circuit. Mrs. Brandon has been named White House social secretary.

For the secretary of state, anyway, that won’t be awkward. Month after month in 1969 Haig would come to the office and shake his head sympathetically when various NSC staffers complained of funny noises on their telephones. Then he would go over to the FB1—he made several trips—to check the wiretap logs provided by J. Edgar Hoover’s aide William Sullivan. On one such visit in 1969 Kissinger came along, according to a memo Sullivan wrote at the time, and after finishing the transcripts said, “It is clear I do not have anybody in my office that I can trust except Colonel Haig here.” Both Kissinger and Haig developed severe amnesia on the subject of the FBI visits during later testimony, but there can be no doubt Haig made a mental note of Kissinger’s comments at the time. His stock was up. Five months after coming to the White House he had climbed over the rest of the NSC staff; four months after that he was named Kissinger’s official deputy.

By 1970, Haig was getting his fingers into everything that touched American foreign policy, including, though he’d later deny it, planning for the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. At NSC meetings he sometimes played class cut-up, pounding an imaginary drumbeat on the table when an African issue arose. But he also had a deadly serious side. In the spring, when several staff members resigned in opposition to the ill-fated invasion of Cambodia, Haig was outraged. He told William Watts, one of those who quit, that Watts simply couldn’t do it—”You’ve just had an order from your Commander-in-Chief….” “Fuck you, Al,” Watts replied. “I just did.” On Cambodia, as at West Point, Haig was the best lightning rod his boss ever had.

What Kissinger didn’t know then—he would find out later—was that Haig’s loyalty went only as far as it would carry him. For the first few years of the administration, that meant utter devotion to the rapidly ascending boss. Haig could not possibly have ordered any taps on his own; he could not, as William Safire put it, “have gone to the bathroom without raising his hand and asking Henry.” But by 1972 or so, that was changing. At the same time that he was working overtime to bail Kissinger out of a paperwork jam, Haig saw to it that he cultivated Haldeman—he was, as one former colleague put it, “Kissinger’s man in Haldeman’s office and Haldeman’s man in Kissinger’s office.” The latter often meant channeling the chief of staff interesting cable traffic, or cluing him in, according to Bill Gulley, then head of the White House Military Office, on all the best White House gossip, including which New York celebrities Kissinger was sleeping with. One of Haig’s lesser known bureaucratic skills is that of office gossip. In fact, one reason NSC staffer Morton Halperin quickly became persona non grata in the West Wing basement was that the wiretap transcripts showed him calling Haig, well, “a God-damned gossip.”

After a while, Haig began playing the same games with Nixon himself, working in subtle ways on the president’s insecurity complex about Kissinger. (Who was the foreign policy tutor? Who the pupil?) Haig would be working late; as usual he beat the competition by sheer stamina. Nixon would drop in on one of his nocturnal wanderings, and they would talk. During the day that translated into a new ability to speak and write with more authority, especially when Kissinger was away on one of his many foreign trips. “Haig would give Kissinger’s messages a tilt. He did a little editing here and a little rephrasing there, making a suggestion that this or that might fall in line better with the President’s view of what should be done than Kissinger’s,” Gulley reports in his book Breaking Cover, a judgment validated by others on Kissinger’s staff at the time.

In later years, when Haig was chief of staff, Kissinger and Haig were openly antagonistic, squabbling over such petty issues as which one would have the room closest to Nixon on trips abroad. But when Haig was Kissinger’s deputy, his enormous skill lay in backing his boss and undermining him at the same time. One former NSC aide recalls a particular lunch with Haig in the White House mess. Kissinger had asked Haig to talk the aide out of leaving the staff. The hard-sell to stay at the NSC was the whole point of the lunch, and Haig said so. But soon the aide found Haig telling story after story about how bad it was working in the office, how strange Kissinger was. “He was very subtly working on all the feelings I had about leaving, all my embers of resentment,” the aide recalls. “He knew what he wanted from me, and he meant to get it.” He did. The aide resigned.

What makes Haig so powerful, according to many accounts, is that uncanny ability to seem your friend and enemy simultaneously—like the popular kid at school who confides one thing to you and another to your buddy, leaving both of you expectant and insecure. The wink and elbow aren’t usually sincere (“I’ll do you a favor, Mr. T.”), but it’s hard to know that at the time. Haldeman, for instance, thought he was on friendly terms with Haig, having recommended him to be his successor as chief of staff. But when he tried to call Nixon during the final days to plead for a pardon, he found he couldn’t get through. Trusty Al wasn’t telling his friend Bob any more dirty jokes. He was telling him to get lost.

The Final Daze

Watergate, strangely enough, is seen by many as Alexander Haig’s finest hour—a positive reason to support his nomination for secretary of state. That line has been peddled far and wide by Barry Goldwater among others, and lent credibility by Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, which suggests Haig not only convinced Nixon to resign “for the good of the country,” but possibly even prevented the president from committing suicide.

As you may have guessed, Haig, the super leak-plugger of earlier years, was a principal source for Woodward and Bernstein’s seminal work, as well as Theodore White’s Breach of Faith. More important, as Watergate buffs know, everybody—Charles Wiggins, Pat Buchanan—everybody believed Nixon had to resign after the existence of the June 23rd “smoking gun” tape was revealed. In fact, Fred Buzhardt and Leonard Garment, the president’s lawyers, wanted Nixon to resign six months earlier, but Haig wouldn’t let them in to see their client. The truth is, Nixon was confronted with a fait accompli that was not of Haig’s making. It was the smoking gun, not Haig, that made Nixon resign. If Haig had succeeded in convincing Nixon to resign a year earlier, that might have meant something. As it happened, all he did was use his close personal relationship with the president to make the inevitable go down easier, hardly the stuff of great secretaries of state.

Haig, it should be noted, told a lie about Watergate during his confirmation hearings in January. It was a little one that went largely unreported in the press—no perjury—but it’s revealing nonetheless. In his prepared statement, Haig said that he spent “90 percent of [his] time” on matters other than Watergate while working as chief of staff.

This can’t possibly be true. White House logs obtained by The Washington Post show he spent more time on the subject even than Nixon, who ate, slept and drank his own defense. In a way, it’s a good thing Haig didn’t do much else but worry about Watergate. When he did handle other matters, like filling vacant jobs in the government while Nixon was preoccupied, the results were men like James Schlesinger. Essentially it was Haig who appointed Schlesinger as secretary of defense, one of several Cabinet departments Schlesinger would leave in shambles.

But what was Haig’s point in saying he didn’t spend much time on Watergate? Only after three days of confirmation hearings was it clear: this was the closest Alexander Haig would ever come to admitting there was anything unseemly about that whole chapter of American life. Until he was dragged out of the hearing room by his attorney and forced to approve a stilted statement of mild regret, Haig would not pass judgment on Watergate, allowing only that there had been “honest differences between honest men” and “abuses on both sides.” The other “side” to which he referred were the forces of what he called the “McCarthy era” (that’s Joe, not Gene)—irresponsible critics who opposed the president. Haig obviously still sees Watergate as merely a political problem, much as Nixon did when in his resignation speech he said he was leaving office because he “no longer had a strong enough political base in the Senate.” That might have been passable for a president on the night he was forced to resign, but, for the top aide, six and a half years later, when every other Watergate figure except Gordon Liddy has at least expressed some remorse?

At the risk of boring all of you who are “weary of Watergate,” as Haig’s defenders put it, it seems worthwhile to whip through—it’ll just take a second—a few of the highlights of Haig’s Watergate performance.

In the fall of 1972, Nixon promoted Haig from two stars to four stars over .240 other senior officers. Haig left the White House briefly to become vice-chief of staff of the army, but in May of 1973 Nixon called him back. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had resigned in disgrace and a new chief of staff was required to hold down the fort. Haig took the job, and over the next year and a half used all of his best bureaucratic abilities to stall the inevitable demise of the Nixon presidency.

Sometimes Haig was downright boastful about those abilities. The Agnew case is a good example: “By July [1973], Elliot [Richardson, then attorney general] told us it was an open and shut case,” Haig said to Teddy White. “We couldn’t accept that; we told him to go reassess.” When the stalling could go on no longer, Haig and the attorneys reached back and drew on the richness of their experience in government: “Arranging that cop-out [Agnew’s no-contest plea, which kept him out of jail] was one of the greatest feats of bureaucratic skill in the history of the art,” Haig said—with the satisfaction of someone who knows of what he speaks.

Not long after Agnew’s resignation came the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.” Here, many people believe Haig was just carrying out Nixon’s instructions. “Your Commander in Chief has given you an order” (to fire Archibald Cox), he told William Ruckelshaus in a line he must have remembered from his Cambodia cameo. In truth, Haig was at least• partially responsible for that order, which is often believed to be among the darkest episodes of Watergate. Five top White House aides and administration officials, including Haig, had gathered the previous week, and all except Richardson agreed Cox would have to go. Nixon, who wasn’t at the meeting, turned out to feel the same way, and gave the order.

Haig coined the phrase “fire storm” to describe what happened next—a burst of outrage the like of which the nation had never seen. Many of the newspapers now praising Haig were at that time already calling for Nixon to resign because of the affair. The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox had touched it all off, but what really alarmed many people was the sealing of the special prosecutor’s office by FBI agents. That seemed like Gestapo tactics. The following day Haig held a press conference at which he announced that he had personally ordered the sealing off because office workers had been seen leaving the premises with papers under their arms.

Haig didn’t talk much to the press on-the-record, but When he did, it was effective. Somehow, his West Point honor code made him seem more credible than others in the administration. Capitalizing on that reputation, Haig and Nixon unleashed “Operation Candor,” a program designed to convince congressional Republicans that the White House was coming clean. On one occasion, Haig strongly implied to Senate Republicans that Richardson had lied about his role in the Cox affair; on another, he told GOP leaders that the soon-to-be-infamous March 21st tape, which he had heard, would prove to be “exculpatory.” He also insisted to Leon Jaworski that the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist was justified on national security grounds.

Had enough? We haven’t even gotten yet to the Howard Hughes connection, the 181/2- minute gap, or his role in the Nixon pardon. The point is, you don’t need a smoking gun to know Alexander Haig was in up to his ears. The worst thing about the June 23rd tape that drove Richard Nixon from office was that it created a new standard for judging guilt in high places in this country. In the smoking gun era in which we live, if you haven’t committed an ‘indictable offense and been stupid enough to have it taped or photographed, you are, ipso facto, clean—and eligible for promotion. Given that, it’s a good thing Senate liberals were unsuccessful in securing subpoenas for still-secret Nixon tapes which might have implicated Haig. If the tapes had not ended up implicating him (and he was probably shrewd enough to avoid saying anything indictable), Haig would now be a candidate for Caesar’s wife.

Picking His Perfume

Many people who watched Haig during Watergate, even friends, describe his faults during those years in the same terms. They say he put the survival of the president over the concept of the presidency. That’s not quite so. In a way, Haig’s loyalty—was neither to the man who happened to occupy the office nor, certainly, to the historic subordination of the presidency to the nation’s laws. Haig’s real loyalty—nay, infatuation—was to the hierarchy and how it could help him. This is best reflected by a story from the Ford administration. Haig, having virtually run the presidency during Nixon’s final days, felt he had long since passed Gerald Ford in the pecking order. The fact that Ford was now president didn’t matter. Here’s Robert Hartmann, Ford’s principal aide, describing the short time Haig remained in the White House in 1974 before taking the NATO post:

“I was in the Oval Office when Haig arrived about 8:30 bearing a fat black briefing book…. For an hour or so Haig displayed elaborate organizational charts and paper flow diagrams. Nothing was very clear except that nobody could possibly understand the system except Haig.

“Ford said he’d like to have the book, which broke down the White House staff positions and listed the current occupants of each position, tenure, title and pay. He wanted to take it home to study. I said I’d like a copy, too. Incredibly, the general in mufti told the president of the United States he couldn’t have it. It was Haig’s only working copy!”

Washington likes flow charts and established procedure almost as much as Haig does, and that helps explain part of his recent success. But more important, a certain segment of Washington likes people who know how to play their game. Thus it was a master stroke for Haig to bring Joe Califano with him to his confirmation hearings as his attorney. Califano is a Democrat—a liberal Democrat with ties to the rest of Washington’s liberal Democratic establishment. Those people like seeing their friend Joe Califano back in the arena after his firing by Carter as HEW secretary. And they like—or give the benefit of the doubt to anyone smart enough to know what kinds of gestures impress them. So for Haig, that sewed it up. He was a winner. He knew whom to appease and how to do it, even if he had once worked for a president who didn’t know those things and wouldn’t play the game. Such an aroma of respectability can overcome any historical stench.

Likewise the scent of impending power. Most of those abused by Haig over the years will not come forward now for fear of losing access to the crumbs of power or influence still available to them. In some cases, old foes have even gone so far as to sing his praises. Winston Lord, Kissinger’s old aide at the NSC and State Department, once told a friend that the nicest thing about moving over to Foggy Bottom when Kissinger became secretary was that he was “all the way across town from Al Haig.” Depressingly, it was no big surprise in January of this year when Lord, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a letter to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommending Haig’s nomination in the strongest terms.

All of this suggests that what Haig’s acceptability really represents is the triumph of habit over experience—the habit being our willingness to settle for men who look a certain part and play a certain role in a bureaucratized American society. That society is a place where loyalty means insulation of the boss and suspension of critical judgment, where getting ahead is more important than what to do when you get there, where whistle-blowing gets punished and ass-covering rewarded, where slick and safe beat sensitive and sorry.

Haig likes to pay lip service to the other, nobler ethic. During his confirmation hearings he was asked about the idea of resignation from office on matters of principle. In a belated effort to take a leaf from the book of his old boss, Cy Vance, Haig claimed he resigned his post as NATO Commander in protest against Carter administration policies. That wasn’t quite true. Haig certainly opposed those policies in private; he probably enjoyed nothing so much as an evening spent exchanging Jimmy Carter jokes with his friend Helmut Schmidt (stroking a friendship which was, by the way, later elevated into one of Haig’s qualifications for high office). But at the time of Haig’s resignation from NATO, there was no letter of protest to Carter, no press conference to announce Haig’s differences. In fact, can anyone even remember Haig breathing a word about “protest” at the time? The real reason for his resignation was more personal: Haig wanted to run for president of the United States.

Like Nixon’s other favorite presidential candidate, John Connally, Haig’s presidential bid flopped. Neither of them had any political base—Haig was forced to bow out before even entering any primaries. But Reagan has given him a new platform from which to seek greater hierarchical heights. The organizational chart contains one more box above secretary of state. The vicar is on the move again.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.