Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., charging that some of President Reagan's closest advisers had concentrated too much on bolstering the chief executive's popularity and not enough on the interest of the American people, announced Tuesday that he will be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
"The issues in the 1988 campaign, I think, above all are leadership and competence for America," the 62-year-old former four-star general told a news conference here.
"There is no question that sophistication of statecraft in the modern world, the globalization of America, the emerging intimacy of our relationship with like-minded nations in political, economic and security affairs, demand a high level of experience in all of those fields. For that reason, as Mort Sahl said, I am going to throw my helmet in the ring."
Sahl, the stand-up comic who based his career on assaults on political figures, supports Haig.
"The President's pre-eminent task is to lead," Haig said. "To lead, a President must be a driven man, driven by the force of his conviction in the rightness of his cause. . . . To lead, a President must realize that his popularity is his greatest strength, yet also his greatest temptation. He cannot mistake his standing in the polls for the real quality of his policy."
Haig, whose 18 months as secretary of state under President Reagan were marked by disagreements and turbulence with some key White House staff members, charged that the men around Reagan have stressed "keeping polls high and popularity up" and have not shown enough interest "in substance and the best interest of the American people." Such political strategy, he charged, contributed to the budget deficit and "fiscal flabbiness."
Answering a question about whether his personality "is too wound up, too intense to make voters comfortable," Haig sought to soften the perception that he is thin-skinned and short-tempered.
Big Heart Inside
With a smile he told reporters that, "inside this exterior of militant, turf-conscious, excessively ambitious demeanor is a heart as big as all outdoors."
Speaking in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Haig, the former chief of staff in the Richard M. Nixon White House during the final months of Watergate, admitted that his candidacy--his first for any public office--is a long shot.
Haig joins a crowded field of announced or potential Republican presidential contenders. He addressed a problem troubling all members of the field--the amount of proximity that they should show to the Reagan Administration, which has been shaken by disclosures over arms sales to Iran and the diversion of funds to the contras seeking to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
"On some of the questions of Central America, I have differences with the Administration," he said. "I never supported the covert program, but now that we are there, I do support aid to the contras because the consequences of suddenly terminating the aid once we started it would be devastating."
He went on to say: "I think President Reagan's contribution to the renaissance of the American spirit which has characterized America in this decade of the '80s is an accomplishment of historic proportions. . . . "
At the same time, Haig drew a series of differences with the Administration. He asserted that greater emphasis should be placed on attacking narcotics in drug-producing countries. He said a more vigorous attack could be launched on the problems of the "rust belt" through greater use of tax incentives, global economic pressures, job retraining and changes in the antitrust laws. He called for an overhaul of the court system and the appointment of more judges to shorten the time between crime and trial.
Haig, who briefly considered running for the presidency in 1980, brings to the race broad experience in domestic and foreign policy, name recognition and contacts with Republican leaders and the business community. Some polls, however, show him running a distant fifth among announced and potential contenders. Some polls show that he is known by as many as 80% of the voters, but that does not appear to translate into much support at this point.
Critics say the image he sought to soften Tuesday--of toughness and occasional arrogance--was clearly on display when President Reagan was shot six years ago. His statement from the White House that, "As of now, I am in control here," and his misstating of the order of presidential succession continued to cause Haig problems far after Reagan was well on the way to recovery.
"Certainly, I was guilty of a poor choice of words, and optimistic if I imagined that I would be forgiven the imprecision out of respect for the tragedy of the occasion," Haig wrote in "Caveat," the memoir of his months at the State Department. "My remark that I was 'in control . . . pending the return of the vice president' was a statement of the fact that I was the senior Cabinet officer present."
West Point Commandant
Haig, who was born in Philadelphia, was a student at the University of Notre Dame before being graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1947. Twenty years later, he returned to the academy as its commandant. He received an MA from Georgetown University in 1961.
During his long and varied career, he saw combat duty in Vietnam, became military assistant to the secretary of the Army and later military assistant to Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser. He headed preparations for the Nixon visit that opened relations with China and, with Kissinger, participated in the Vietnam peace negotiations.
After he served as White House chief of staff in the last days of the Nixon Administration, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him commander of NATO forces in Europe. While serving in that post, he escaped an assassination attempt in Belgium in June, 1979, when a bomb went off just after his car had passed.
In 1979, after retiring from the Army, he became president and chief operating officer of United Technologies Corp. in Hartford, Conn. A pre-employment physical in connection with a life insurance policy disclosed blockages in coronary arteries and in late March, 1980, Haig underwent double-bypass surgery.
During the last four years, he has headed his own consulting company, Worldwide Associates.
After his experience with press leaks against him as secretary of state, Haig wrote of Washington life in his memoirs: "The press is a peculiar, disembodied, melancholy creature driven by strange hungers, never happy with its triumphs, wanting always to be loved and incessantly suspecting that it is not. In this, of course, it closely resembles the politician."
Staff writer Paul Houston in Washington contributed to this story.
ALEXANDER MEIGS HAIG JR.
Born: Dec. 2, 1924, Philadelphia.
Parents: The late Alexander Meigs Haig, a lawyer, and the late Regina Anne Murphy Haig.
Education: BS, military science, U.S. Military Academy, 1947; MA, international relations, Georgetown University, 1961.
Professional career: U.S. Army, 1947-79 (made general 1973); special assistant to secretary of defense, 1964-65; field commander, Vietnam, 1966-67; deputy to President's national security adviser, 1969-73; Army vice chief of staff, 1973; White House chief of staff, 1973-74; supreme allied commander of NATO, 1974-79; president, United Technologies Corp., 1979-81; secretary of state, 1981-82; president, Worldwide Associates Inc. consulting firm, 1982-present.
Family: Wife, Patricia Antoinette Fox; daughter and two sons.
Religion: Roman Catholic.
Accomplishments: Battlefield decorations include Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart. Member of President's commissions on MX missile and chemical warfare. Author of "Caveat: Reagan, Realism and Foreign Policy."
For linking progress on strategic arms control to halt of Soviet intervention in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola. For linking reductions of U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe to cuts in Soviet short-range missiles and joint agreements on chemical weapons and conventional forces. For line-item budget veto, against constitutional amendment to balance budget. For "Star Wars" missile-defense testing. For aid to Nicaraguan contras . Against federal funding of abortion, against constitutional amendment banning abortion. Against trade protectionism; for cutting deficit with economic summits, revised antitrust laws, restoration of investment tax credit.
Strengths: Extensive foreign policy experience. Self-assured. Knowledgeable. Careful planner. Strong platform presence. Wry wit.
Vulnerabilities: Abrasive hard-charger. Volatile. Pompous. Association with Henry A. Kissinger during detente with Soviets, Richard M. Nixon during Watergate, Gerald R. Ford during pardon of Nixon.