AFP - The late Alexander Haig's many achievements were forever overshadowed by five words he said the day president Ronald Reagan was shot and hospitalized in 1981, when the retired general told a nation in shock: "I am in control here."
Haig, 85, died early Saturday in a Baltimore, Maryland, hospital. No official cause of death was given.
On March 30, 1981 a gunman shot Reagan as he was leaving a Washington hotel. The president was rushed to a nearby hospital, and with vice president George Bush out of town and with barely audible communications, the White House was in chaos, witnesses recounted years later.
Senior US officials feared the murder attempt might be part of a plot ordered by the Soviet Union, or that the Soviets could take advantage of the situation and attack in Europe.
Haig, Reagan's secretary of state, faced the TV cameras.
"Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so," he said.
"As for now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him, of course."
The line of succession actually goes through the vice president, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the oldest US senator of the party in power before reaching the secretary of state.
The blunt-spoken Haig said he was referring to the person temporarily in charge of the executive branch -- but was widely mocked in the following months for seeming to overstep his authority.
Alexander Meigs Haig, Jr. was born December 2, 1924 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Haig attended the US Army academy at West Point, and soon after graduation was assigned to World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur's staff in Japan. He later saw combat in the Korean War, earning medals for bravery.
After Korea, Haig worked at the Pentagon and was an aide to then-defense secretary Robert McNamara. Anxious for action, in 1965 Haig went to Vietnam as an infantry battalion commander, where he saw intense combat and was decorated for bravery under fire.
Promoted to colonel, Haig returned to Washington in 1969 to be then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger's military aide.
Haig "disciplined my anarchic tendencies and established coherence in a ... staff of talented prima donnas," Kissinger wrote in a 1982 Time magazine article.
"To be sure, nobody survives in the rough-and-tumble of White House politics -- especially of the (president Richard) Nixon White House -- without a good measure of ruthlessness. Haig was implacable in squeezing to the sidelines potential competitors for my attention," Kissinger wrote. He praised Haig as "formidable."
Haig was promoted again, continued working in the White House, and in 1973-74 served as Nixon's chief of staff.
For years, some scholars were convinced that Haig was "Deep Throat," the Washington Post insider source on the Watergate break-in scandal coverup that ultimately forced Nixon to resign. (In 2005 a senior FBI official, Mark Felt, acknowledged being the source).
Haig helped convince Nixon to step down, smoothed the transition between him and vice president Gerald Ford, and even tried to negotiate an immediate pardon for his boss. Ford did not bargain, but did pardon Nixon a month later.
In a 2009 Palm Beach Post newspaper, Haig said Nixon was "misunderstood," and praised him as a "visionary."
Haig also said he had ordered White House staff to seize Nixon's pills, fearing the president would commit suicide.
After the White House Haig was promoted and served 1974-1979 as the supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe. He retired as a four-star general in 1979, and Reagan chose him as secretary of state two years later.
Haig was at the top of his game when he graced the March 16, 1981 cover of Time magazine, just weeks before the Reagan assassination attempt.
Behind the scenes, however, Haig clashed with senior Reagan officials, including defense secretary Casper Weinberger and top aides Edwin Meese and James Baker.
In April 1982 he conducted shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Talks broke down, and the British stormed the islands.
Frustrated and bitter by what he claimed was an inconsistent foreign policy, Haig resigned in July 1982 after just 18 months, then lashed out at his rivals in a 1984 book entitled "Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy."
He made a brief comeback seeking the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1987 -- losing to future president George Bush -- then remained active in the Washington think-tank circuit of retired officials.
Opponents enjoyed picking at Haig's sometimes convoluted syntax. One of his most ridiculed statements was: "That's not a lie. It is a terminological inexactitude. Also, a tactical misrepresentation."
In 1992, he penned a more comprehensive memoir: "Inner Circles: How America Changed The World."