Death of a Banana Republican
Al Haig was a neurotic narcissist with an unquenchable craving for power.
"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."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Alexander Haig by Tom Ordelman.