SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Alexander Haig has died - the retired general who served as White House chief of staff under Richard Nixon and the secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Haig was 85. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Alexander Haig had a long career in the Army, at the highest levels of government, and in private industry. But the one moment most remembered from that career came on a March day in 1981, after President Ronald Reagan had been wounded by a would-be assassin.
Vice President George Bush was flying back from an out-of-town engagement, and Haig, the secretary of state, was asked by reporters who was making decisions for the government:
Mr. ALEXANDER HAIG (U.S. Secretary of State): As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the vice president, and I'm in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
NAYLOR: That statement I am in control here was lampooned, in part because Haig mistakenly thought he was next in the line of succession. Critics said Haig was overly ambitious.
A West Point grad, he made captain in the Korean War and took part in the Inchon landings. In the '50s, he studied war, business and international relations. He became an assistant to Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance and fought as a battalion and then a brigade commander in Vietnam.
In 1969, he attached his star to that of Henry Kissinger, who was then President Richard Nixon's national security adviser. He won Nixon's trust and was promoted from two-star to four-star general, superseding many more senior officers.
At the White House, he became a special assistant to the president and eventually succeeded H.R. Haldeman as Nixon's chief of staff. In 1974, Haig played a key role in persuading Nixon to step down when the president's impending impeachment in the Watergate scandal threatened to become a constitutional crisis. He later said it was a tough sell.
Mr. HAIG: First he was ready to do it, then he would meet with the family, and the family, understandably, would be very much opposed to his quitting and that's the term he used, quit. And so he delayed.
NAYLOR: Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, appointed Haig supreme commander of NATO. After the election of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Haig left the military to become head of defense contractor United Technologies.
With Reagan's election in 1980, Haig returned to Washington as secretary of state and battled with the national security adviser over control of foreign policy.
Such infighting within the administration led to Haig's resignation in 1982. In 1988, he decided to make his own run for the White House, challenging the eventual nominee, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, to reveal his advice to Ronald Reagan on the Iran-Contra affair.
Mr. HAIG: I think the American people do want to know what you said, and sooner or later you're going to have to do it. If you can't answer your friends, what in heavens name is going to happen next November if you are standard-bearer and these Democrats get after you on this subject?
NAYLOR: But Haig's campaign never gained traction, and he withdrew from the race, returning to the private sector. He gave speeches, wrote, and hosted TV programs.
Asked once his greatest achievement, Haig said it was the privilege and honor of leading American troops under fire.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
NPR News analyst Juan Williams joins us. Juan, thank you very much for being with us.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: And as Brian Naylor just reviewed for us, Alexander Haig's career was a lot more than that one line he uttered about being in control here at the White House pending the return of the vice president. How do you assess the resonance of his career right now?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think there's three things that stand out as sort of brass tacks. One would be Vietnam. As you heard in Brian's report, he fought in Vietnam, rose to become a battalion commander, in fact. And then became Henry Kissinger - then the national security adviser's - top military advisor with regard to Vietnam and negotiated or helped to set up the terms of negotiation for the end of the war, return of prisoners of war from Vietnam.
The second thing is Watergate, his role there. He becomes the de facto president of the United States for a good time as President Nixon is preoccupied with Watergate. It's Haig who's running the White House for a good while there and then helps to persuade the president not only in terms of the resignation but to persuade President Ford that he should pardon him. Again, another major moment in history.
And then finally, as secretary of state he was such a hard-line anti-communist. Hard on the Soviet Union, extending it to his attitude towards Afghanistan, for example, and that led him into really hard fights where he was seen as dogmatic.
SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much for being with us.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.
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