Fighting Words

Death of a Banana Republican

Al Haig was a neurotic narcissist with an unquenchable craving for power.

Alexander Haig

“Nobody has a higher opinion of General Alexander Haig than I do,” I once wrote. “And I think he is a homicidal buffoon.” I did not then realize that this view of mine was at least partly shared by so many senior figures on the American right.

When I moved to Washington in the very early years of Ronald Reagan’s tenure, I was pretty sure that Haig, then secretary of state, was delusional (and not even in a good way). What I would not have believed then was what has become apparent since—that his boss, Ronald Reagan, often felt the same way. According to Douglas Brinkley’s splendid edition of the president’s diaries, Reagan wrote as early as March 24, 1981:

Later in day a call from Al Haig, all upset about an announcement that George B. is to be chairman of the Crisis Council. Historically the chairman is Nat.Sec.Advisor [Richard V. Allen]. Al thinks his turf is being invaded. We chose George becauseAl is wary of Dick. He talked of resigning. Frankly, I think he’s seeing things that aren’t there.

A bit more than a year later, on June 25, 1982, after Haig had been largely responsible for the historic calamity that had allowed Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon to occupy Beirut, Reagan decided to do what he’d clearly already decided to do if Haig talked about resignation again—grab the chance!

Today was the day—I told Al H I had decided to accept his resignation. He didn’t seem surprised but he said his differences were on policy and then said we didn’t agree on China or Russia etc. … This has been a heavy load. Up to Camp David where we were in time to see Al read his letter of resignation on TV. I’m told it was his 4th re-write. Apparently his 1st was pretty strong—then he thought better of it. I must say it was OK. He gave only one reason and did say there was a disagreement on foreign policy. Actually the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Sec of State did.

The result was a terse one-page letter from Reagan to Haig, letting him go.

Just a few days after his president had begun to suspect that Haig was “seeing things that aren’t there,” on March 30, 1981, to be exact, this neurotic narcissist seized the microphone and made a clumsy attempt to seize power. With Reagan lying critically injured in the hospital, Haig announced in the Situation Room that “the helm is right here, and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” As his rival Richard Allen commented, having caught the megalomaniacal drivel on tape, this was “out” by several degrees and intermediate officers mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. “But Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”

I saw that “demeanor” up close more than once and was coldly appalled by the pig-nostriled and also piggy-eyed form that it took. But nothing could equal that day’s performance, which evinced all the sweaty, pasty-faced, trembling symptoms of a weak king or of a slobbering dauphin who could not wait to try on the crown. For a few hours at least, the United States of America appeared to be—and actually was—a pathetic banana republic.

Indeed, the bulk of Haig’s awful political career was an example of banana-republic principles and the related phenomenon of an overambitious man in uniform who mastered the essential art of licking the derrières of those above him while simultaneously (see above) bullying and menacing those below. This was the method he perfected between 1969 and ‘74, serving Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and helping to superimpose an impression of “order” on a White House that was full of dysfunction, crookery, and coverup. Without any further battlefield experience, except for propaganda trips to Vietnam to support a war that his bosses had artificially prolonged, he moved up the ladder from colonel to four-star general—not bad even for a man who had gotten started by marrying his commanding general’s daughter.

Haig had few illusions about the sort of people for whom he was working, and liked to gratify both sides of a riven White House. According to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Final Days, to Kissinger and others he liked to joke after hours that “Nixon and Bebe Rebozo had a homosexual relationship, imitating what he called the President’s limp-wrist manner.” When it came time to fold the whole dirty game, he was the first to go to Vice President Gerald Ford and suggest the low stratagem of a pardon that would put the lawbreaker in chief (and by extension some of his underlings) above the law itself.

Haig also developed a natural sympathy for some of the more vicious banana-republic dictatorships with which he had worked overseas. He helped Kissinger to wreck Chile during his first tour in the White House, and under Reagan was one of those who took a sympathetic view of the Argentine military fascists in the Falklands War. I shall also never forget the day in February 1981 (mentioned by none of Haig’s obituarists) when extremist mutineers in the Spanish army took over the parliament in Madrid and our secretary of state, asked for a comment, described this assault on Europe’s newest democracy as purely an internal matter for Spain.

Having made a complete clown of himself with attempts to run for the presidency in 1980 (when his efforts stopped at considering a run) and 1988, Haig went into quasi-retirement and advised on arms sales to the sorts of regimes who like to have a former general and politician as an “adviser.” He then decided that politics was not for him after all, since “the life of a politician is sleaze.” We all think this from time to time, but Haig really came by the idea dishonestly. His manically authoritarian personality frightened even many on the right, from John Poindexter to Richard Allen, and his career was one of contempt for democracy at home and abroad. From his squalid life one can learn to detect the diseased symptoms of Caesarism and the urgency of combating it.

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