When President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, chaos ensued behind the scenes at the White House. With no real protocol in place for such a situation, everyone involved had to improvise and hope that everything would turn out right. In an attempt to keep everyone calm, Al Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, committed a PR faux pas — and showed a glaring lapse in basic knowledge of the Constitution — by telling the press that he was in charge while the President was in surgery. Unaware of just how serious the President’s condition really was, key officials began to do their best damage control and keep not only the reporters calm but the country and the world at large.
G. Philip Hughes, the Vice President’s Deputy Foreign Policy Advisor, Samuel Gammon, the Executive Assistant in Management, and John Kelly, at the Secretariat at the Department of State, all watched the Haig incident unfold and tell their respective stories leading up to Haig’s misinterpreted declaration of power. Hughes was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1997. Gammon was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in February 1989. Kelly was interviewed by Thomas Stern beginning in December 1995.
You can also read about Haig’s embarrassment after a Nicaraguan soldier recanted regarding Cuban involvement in El Salvador, his run-in with the ambassador over U.S. policy in El Salvador, and his yelling match with an FSO who quit because of disagreements on bombing Cambodia. Go here to read about the events that led to his resignation.
Flushed and Frazzled
HUGHES: When the assassination attempt on President Reagan occurred,… Al Haig came to the White House and he convened a meeting of the NSC to go over the situation with Reagan’s advisors. There was of course great public anxiety, and someone had to go up and make a press statement. Either Haig nominated himself or someone nominated him but in any event he walked into the press room breathless. I remember watching this on TV from my office. He walked into the press room breathless. He looked perfectly flushed and frazzled….
The Vice President had been notified and he was flying back from Texas and in the meantime Al Haig was in control at the White House. A particularly infelicitous choice of words which, I think, already in the minds of many Reagan supporters and staff, for Al Haig to come up and say that “I, Al Haig, am in control here at the White House,” just convinced many people that, first of all he was intemperate and injudicious and not suited for the role, and further that he had vast ambitions of power in the administration which were not in keeping with the way that Reagan cabinet secretaries were expected to behave. So frankly then there were a whole bunch of battles after that and Mr. Haig passed from the scene.
“It sounded like a putsch!”
GAMMON: This is too good an anecdote to miss, the afternoon that Reagan was shot. Richard Kennedy had taken Read’s post as Under Secretary for Management. I had known Dick since he was one of Kissinger’s people in the NSC in my S/S [Secretary’s staff] incarnation some years earlier. He got the phone call that the President had been shot.
He very properly grabbed me and one other staffer, and we flew down the corridor to the Operations Center of the Department which has superior communications. We plugged in then, because Al Haig, as we all remember, went darting over to the White House very properly. Al’s instincts were right in every respect except his PR instinct was abysmal.
Haig went on television and said ‘I’m in charge here and not to worry.’ But his sound instinct in this type of situation of passing the message to everybody that the U.S. government continues and there’s no problem miscarried in his delivery– [it] sounded like a putsch! Well, we did not know then and we didn’t find out until many months later how serious the shooting was. At the time the early word was that the President was okay.…
We were in the Ops Center from about 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon until 9:30 at night until he came out of surgery. The first thing we did was we sent for the emergency manual. There is of course a manual in the Department for everything. The emergency book was still called the Carter-Mondale Book. The only thing it covered was the death of a president in an assassination; it was based on Kennedy, what you knew. It had the standard operating procedure, you do this and you do that, you get somebody from the historical office to make sure that there’s a good historical record and reassuring messages to, the whole schmeer was all in there, except it did not cover what we then saw very clearly might be the real contingency until we were told, “Oh, poo poo, it was minor.”
Which was a lie. The Kennedy/Lincoln model is not the only one–there is also the Garfield and the McKinley. What do you do about the 25th Amendment and the long lingering total incapacity and the Wilson precedent?
The first thing I did the next day was to ask the Ops Center to redo the book, taking into account the 25th Amendment, having some other contingency situation other than the fatal, an airplane crash or an assassination or a fatal abrupt cutting off of the presidency, to take account of the whole middle ground area that might develop–which I have reason to believe they did, I never saw the final product.
“It was an unfortunate use of words, which was blown all out of proportion”
KELLY: We were hard at work that afternoon; I was in my Deputy Executive Secretary’s office which was adjacent to the Secretary’s office when I heard that the President was shot. Like everyone else, we turned on our TVs. Haig was in his office. At first, of course, we heard a lot of misinformation or poor information. When it became clear that the President had been seriously wounded, Haig asked for a briefing on the Constitutional process that determines succession. I think that was very appropriate; the senior member of the Cabinet should be up-to-date on this question.
There was some confusion in the senior levels of the government.…The President was totally incommunicado; the Vice President was on an airplane heading for Hawaii. Haig talked to others as well and it became clear that no one was doing anything to bring the panic under control. By mid-afternoon, the world knew that the President was in serious condition, but not much else.
Larry Speakes, the White House spokesperson, went on TV and did not make a reassuring appearance; it was clear that he was very shaken as was all of the White House staff. In the Department, we knew, based on previous similar experiences, that the U.S. had to assure its allies and adversaries that its government was functioning normally; that despite the temporary loss of its leader, the U.S. had the situation well in hand….
I and someone from L [the State Department’s Legal Bureau] probably drafted a “flash” message to all our embassies overseas, telling them what we knew the situation to be, including the President’s medical situation and requesting that they convey to their host governments reassurance that the situation was under control. Some of the Assistant Secretaries were on the phone talking to some foreign leaders, some of whom had called the White House and may not have been put at ease by Dick Allen, the National Security Advisor or whoever they may have talked to.
In any case, Haig saw the necessity to calm the fears in other capitals. So I thought the Secretary was approaching the issue as it was supposed to be addressed. In one of his conversation with [Counselor to the President and later Attorney General Edwin] Meese, Haig suggested that the Cabinet be convened, which was done.
There ensued an alleged argument between Haig and [Secretary of Defense Casper] Weinberger which has been widely reported in the press. It was reported that Weinberger, on his own authority, had raised the “alert” status of our armed forces. This was a subject that Haig knew far better than Weinberger; he felt that in absence of any threat the alert level should not be changed and that, on the contrary, this action gave just the opposite impression from the one that was to be conveyed, i.e., normalcy.
The last thing that was needed was to get into an accidental conflict. So the Secretaries of State and Defense had a clear difference of opinion. Speakes appeared again in public, still looking shaken and unsure. We saw Speakes on the TV, but we didn’t know whether the Cabinet was also watching in the Situation Room. So we called the Sit Room and asked that a message be passed to Secretary Haig. We suggested that someone of stature appear on TV to reassure the country and the world because we thought that Speakes was falling far short of doing that. We may have overstepped the boundaries of our responsibilities, but we did send such a message.
Sometime after that, Haig ran up to the press room and made his famous statement that “I am in charge here” in answer to a question. It was an unfortunate phrase because all he wanted to convey that he was the senior Cabinet officer present; there is no doubt in my mind that he was not trying to usurp the prerogatives of various officials, but his comment contributed to Haig’s reputation as a “hot head.” It was just an unfortunate use of words, which was blown all out of proportion.