People have differing opinions on things that Alexander Meigs Haig, Jr., said and did between December 2, 1924 and March 29, 1981. Same goes for things he said and did between March 31, 1981 and today, February 20, 2010, when he died at the age of 85.
But, for better or worse, he will always be remembered for the events of March 30, 1981. That afternoon, President Ronald Reagan was shot and seriously wounded, in Washington, DC. Vice President George H.W. Bush was away from the capital, on a trip to his home state of Texas. Haig, who had become secretary of state two months earlier, rushed to the White House and told reporters "I am in control here". His meaning was not entirely clear, but he appeared to be incorrectly claiming the next spot in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president.
From 1886 to 1947, the secretary of state was next in line. But the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate were then put ahead of the secretary of state. The rationale was that elected leaders should have higher priority than the appointed Cabinet secretaries. The president and vice president are the only federal officers who are elected by the entire country. However, congressional leaders are elected by representatives from all parts of the U.S., so they can claim an indirect mandate from the American people. And, of course, the president and vice president are also indirectly elected, by members of the Electoral College.
In 1988, Haig again tried to get in control at the White House. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination.
While Haig never became president, he had been, by some accounts at least, a sort of acting president, between May 1973 and August 1974. He replaced Bob Haldeman as White House chief of staff, when Haldeman resigned after having been implicated in the Watergate scandal. With President Richard Nixon spending much of his time on Watergate-related matters, Haig performed much of the work having to do with the regular business of government.
Haig's tenure as secretary of state in the Reagan Administration was cut short, when the president fired him, in June of 1982. Haig had never developed a good relationship with the White House staff. It's not clear whether the lust for power that Haig seemed to show in the wake of the assassination attempt had anything to do with the brief nature of his time as secretary.
For those of us in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, Haig was a former neighbor. He shared with professional basketball player Kobe Bryant the distinction of being an alumnus of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.