WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alexander Haig, a former Army general who became White House chief of staff during the Watergate scandal and secretary of state during the Reagan administration, died Saturday at the age of 85.
Haig sought the U.S. presidency, but his bid for the Republican nomination ended in failure in 1988, a campaign noted for his acerbic taunting of other candidates including Vice President George H.W. Bush, the eventual winner.
A spokesman for Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore said Haig died early Saturday from a staph infection acquired prior to his arrival at the hospital.
Symbolically, the closest Haig came to being president was when he proclaimed to the news media that “I’m in control here” after President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981.
Critics called that statement, which seemed to incorrectly state the line of presidential succession, pompous and militaristic and used it against him later on the campaign trail.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, praised Haig on Saturday as a “great American” who served the United States with distinction. “General Haig exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service,” Obama said in a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” he added.
Haig secured a place in American history by holding the presidency together in 1974 during the months leading up to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.
Telling friends that “when your president asks, you do it,” he had reluctantly resigned as Army vice chief of staff in May 1973 to take over the top White House staff job at a time when Nixon’s administration seemed to be drifting out of control.
Haig emerged as one of the few respected hands untainted by the scandal and was widely credited with persuading Nixon to avoid a nasty and divisive battle over impeachment by becoming the first U.S. president to resign.
For many years, Haig’s name was one often mentioned as being “Deep Throat,” the legendary Washington Post source who had helped bring down Nixon. In 2005, former FBI official Mark Felt broke his silence and confirmed that he was the mysterious source.
Haig served as NATO commander from 1974-79. He was appointed secretary of state by Reagan in 1981 and tried to mediate between Argentina and Britain to head off the Falklands War in 1982.
His 18-month tenure as foreign policy chief was marred by constant battles with the White House staff. He quit in anger in June 1982. He was succeeded by George Shultz.
K.T. McFarland, a former aide to Haig, told Fox News Haig shaped U.S. foreign policy during and after the Vietnam War and played a significant role in helping to end the Cold War.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, said Haig had earned “honor on the battlefield, the confidence of presidents and prime ministers, and the thanks of a grateful nation.”
In typical Haig fashion — critics called it arrogance — he did little to hide his contempt for Reagan’s senior staff.
“I think my last experience in government left me convinced that I could do it better,” he said years later when he was conducting his ill-starred 1988 campaign for president.
That appearance of supreme self-confidence only seemed to turn voters off and his campaign ended with a thud. Running last among Republicans and in nationwide popularity surveys, Haig dropped out as the primaries began and threw his support behind Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.
Not one to spare foes his disdain, Haig seemed to relish attacking Bush. “From my point of view, Bob Dole is head and shoulders above George Bush as a potential president.”
Haig was the only 1988 Republican contender who made a point of criticizing some of Reagan’s policies, including the conduct of U.S.-Soviet relations that led to a thaw in superpower relations and progress in arms control.
Born December 2, 1924, in Philadelphia, Alexander Meigs Haig entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and spent World War II as a cadet officer. He later served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
His big break came in 1962 when, as a lieutenant colonel, he became an assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
He moved into the higher echelons of national policymaking in 1969 when he was chosen to be Henry Kissinger’s deputy at the national security council.
Nixon rewarded him for his national security service by bumping him past 240 more senior officers and naming him vice chief of staff of the Army. He held the post for just four months before he was called back to White House duty.