Alexander Haig’s 1981 Warning: Fixing Presidential Succession

On March 30, 1981, as President Ronald Reagan lay at death’s door in Georgetown Hospital, and with Vice-President George H. W. Bush in a plane bound for DC but without air-to-ground communication with the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes stood at the podium in the press room of the White House. Asked about who had control of the “nuclear football” Speakes was unable to give a coherent answer. To the rescue came Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

Rushing from the situation room to the press room, Haig told reporters: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president.” Haig added, re presidential succession that “Constitutionally you have the president, vice-president and then the secretary of state…” in a formulation that omitted the Speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate, as designated by a 1947 law. Haig went on to say that if anything happened he would “of course” check with the VP upon establishing communication.

Haig, deeply unpopular with many reporters for his suspected role during Watergate, was roasted alive by the press, practically accused of attempting a palace coup. Imagine, for a moment, if Haig had stayed down in the situation room and no one else stepped forward in place of Speakes. A stammering press flack unable to explain who had control of nuclear codes would have thrown the press into a tizzy, generating all sorts of headlines the next day (and on the nightly news) about a rudderless administration during time of potential nuclear crisis. Thus Haig deserved praise, not condemnation. His flub on the succession sequence was of no serious moment, versus his stepping forth to indicate someone was in charge.

Which brings to mind the antiquated 1947 Truman administration law. Look at the current line of succession. After Joe Biden comes Nancy Pelosi, whom few Republicans think qualified to step in as commander-in-chief. (To be fair, when GOP Rep. Denny Hastert was Speaker, few Democrats thought him qualified either.)

Then comes President pro tem Robert Byrd, age 91 and in dubious health to continue holding even his present office. (When the GOP held the Senate, for years Strom Thurmond held the pro tem office, even at age 100, and clearly was not fit to exercise Presidential powers in full.) Cabinet secretaries stand in line based upon the historical date of their department’s creation, without regard to subject matter. Fourth is Hillary, reasonably qualified. Then comes Treasury Secretary Geithner, a financial nerd no one thinks qualified. Then comes SecDef Robert Gates, fully qualified. Seventeenth, next to last, is Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, former Army vice-chief of staff, also fully qualified. In between, do not even ask. Last (mercifully, in this case) is Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who at least now knows al-Qaeda is still coming after us hard.

In sum, after the Vice-President, save for the secretaries of state and defense, not a single officer in line to succeed to the highest office stands close by virtue of ranked credentials as commander-in-chief. This is a situation much in need of remedy. Putting a pair of Congressional leaders—one of whom (from the Senate) practically no one in the country can name—in the line of succession made no sense in 1947 and makes even less sense today, with a 24/7 global media cycle in the midst of several wars.

Presidential succession can be fixed, with two changes. First, the line of succession should be restricted to Executive Branch officials. Chosen by the elected President, they have more legitimacy than a Speaker elected by a parochial constituency or an obscure parliamentary presiding officer in the Senate chosen by seniority.

Second, the President should be empowered to select the line of succession among his appointed officials, in accordance with his assessment as to who among his Cabinet picks is best qualified to be commander-in-chief. This will vary in every administration. For example, James Schlesinger, a former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, was as Carter’s first Energy Secretary far better qualified than most of the eleven Cabinet officers in front of him, and the two Congressional succession stand-ins as well.

Best then, to let each president order the list, giving to Congress on Inauguration Day the chosen ranking. Congressional confirmation can be required, with an up-or-down vote on the entire slate rather than cherry-picking each one. Upon submitting new appointments to replace those departing the Cabinet, the president can re-order the list. The vote should be taken within ten calendar days.

Bottom Line. General Haig’s episode is a reminder of the unresolved mess we have as to presidential succession. It is about time we fixed this by designating successors based upon ability to serve as commander-in-chief, the prime presidential responsibility. Call it the Alexander Haig Presidential Succession Law, after the public servant whose storied career included putting common sense ahead of Constitutional succession arcana that terrible, dangerous day a generation ago.

John C. Wohlstetter is founder of the issues blog “Letter From The Capitol,” author of “The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us,” and is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute.

John Wohlstetter

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (beg. 2001) and the Gold Institute for International Strategy (beg. 2021). His primary areas of expertise are national security and foreign policy, and the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He is author of Sleepwalking With The Bomb (2nd ed. 2014), and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us (2008). He was founder and editor of the issues blog Letter From The Capitol (2005-2015). His articles have been published by The American Spectator, National Review Online, Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Daily Caller, PJ Media, Washington Times and others. He is an amateur concert pianist, residing in Charleston, South Carolina.