WASHINGTON – Alexander M. Haig’s life threaded through some of the most tumultuous episodes of the second half of the 20th century. An Army officer in Vietnam, a presidential adviser during the Watergate scandal and a key Cabinet member during the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, he was a combat warrior who found himself a diplomat, a career military man who became the consummate political insider.
He died Saturday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from a staph infection he had before being admitted, a hospital spokeswoman said. He was 85.
Haig is probably best remembered by many Americans as the man who asserted his authority in the White House after Reagan was shot outside a Washington hotel in 1981 – despite the fact that, as secretary of state, he was well down the line of presidential succession.
The gaffe sparked a small-scale firestorm. But Haig had been a controversial figure in Washington circles for years, chiefly for his role as President Richard M. Nixon’s chief of staff as the administration buckled beneath the weight of the Watergate investigation. Haig was credited by many for holding the White House together as its walls closed in on the president.
Haig, who attained the rank of four-star general, was that rare Washington species: a product of the armed forces who adapted seamlessly to the byzantine workings of executive power. Brash, steely, opinionated, he fought on the battlefield and navigated the corridors of the Pentagon and White House with equal aplomb, and his progress became linked with those of other notable figures of the period such as Douglas MacArthur, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and, later, Nixon and Reagan.
So enmeshed was he in Nixon’s inner circle that for years he was widely suspected of being the celebrated “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source who fed Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward information on Watergate. The mysterious source ultimately was revealed to be FBI official W. Mark Felt.
After Nixon resigned, Haig returned to the military as the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe before Reagan tapped him as his first secretary of state, a post he occupied for just 18 months. The self-proclaimed “vicar” of American foreign policy, he struggled among the shifting turf battles of that administration’s early years and soon became their victim.
He would unsuccessfully run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Later in his career, he turned his eye toward business, becoming an adviser to several corporations, serving as a founding board member of America Online, and commanding a hefty fee on the lecture circuit.
President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday said Haig “exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service.”