Alexander Haig, the four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state under President Reagan and a commanding White House chief of staff as the Nixon administration crumbled, died Saturday of complications from an infection. He was 85.

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Alexander Haig, the four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state under President Reagan and a commanding White House chief of staff as the Nixon administration crumbled, died Saturday of complications from an infection. He was 85.

Gen. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, the Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that “the third paragraph of his obit” would detail his conduct in the hours after Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981.

That day, Gen. Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. “The helm is right here,” he told members of the Reagan Cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” His words were taped by Richard Allen, the national-security adviser.

His colleagues knew better. “There were three others ahead of Mr. Haig in the constitutional succession,” Allen wrote in 2001. “But Mr. Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”

Declaration

Gen. Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” He raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions. His knuckles whitening, his arms shaking, he declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance.

Seven years before, Gen. Haig had been in control. He was widely perceived as the acting president during the final months of the Nixon administration.

He kept the White House running as the distraught and despondent commander in chief was driven from power by the threat of impeachment in 1974. “He was the president toward the end,” William Saxbe, the attorney general at the time, was quoted as saying in “Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency.”

Henry Kissinger, his mentor in the Nixon White House, also said the nation owed Gen. Haig its gratitude. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline, he held the government together,” Kissinger wrote in the memoir “Years of Upheaval.”

Gen. Haig took pride in his cool handling of a constitutional crisis without precedent.

“There were no tanks,” he said during a hearing on his nomination as secretary of state in 1981. “There were not any sandbags outside the White House.”

Serving the Nixon White House from 1969 to 1974, Gen. Haig went from colonel to four-star general without holding a major battlefield command, an extraordinary rise with few if any precedents in U.S. military history.

But the White House was its own battlefield in those years. He won his stars through his service to President Nixon and the president’s national-security adviser, Kissinger.

Lost composure

Gen. Haig never lost his will, but he frequently lost his composure as Reagan’s secretary of state. As a consequence, he lost his job.

Nixon had privately suggested to the Reagan transition team that Gen. Haig would make a great secretary of state.

But he alienated his affable commander in chief and the vice president, George H.W. Bush, whose national-security aide, Donald Gregg, described Gen. Haig as “a cobra among garter snakes.”

Gen. Haig served for 17 months before Reagan dismissed him with a one-page letter on June 24, 1982.

Those months were marked by a largely covert paramilitary campaign against Central American leftists, a heightening of nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union and dismay among U.S. allies about the lurching course of U.S. foreign policy.

Beirut bombing

Gen. Haig said the president had assured him he “would be the spokesman for the U.S. government.” But he came to believe — with reason — that the White House staff had banded together against him.

He blamed in particular the so-called troika of James Baker, Edwin Meese and Michael Deaver.

“Reagan was a cipher,” Gen. Haig said. “These men were running the government.”

He reflected: “Having been a White House chief of staff, and having lived in the White House under great tension, you know that the White House attracts extremely ambitious people. Those who get to the top are usually prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get there.”

Gen. Haig briefly considered running for president in 1980 and became a candidate in 1988, but his campaign attracted virtually no popular support.

A spokesman for Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Gen. Haig died, said his death was caused by staphylococcal infection he had before his admission to the hospital.

President Obama said Saturday that, “Today we mourn the loss of Alexander Haig, a great American who served our country with distinction. Gen. Haig exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service.”

Born Dec. 2, 1924, in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Alexander Meigs Haig spent his boyhood dreaming about a military career. With the help of an uncle who had congressional contacts, he secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1943.

After seeing combat in Korea and Vietnam, Gen. Haig — an Army colonel — was tapped by Kissinger to be his military adviser on the National Security Council under Nixon. Gen. Haig “soon became indispensable,” Kissinger later said.

Nixon promoted him in 1972 from a two-star general to a four-star rank, passing over 240 high-ranking officers with greater seniority.

As the Watergate scandal deepened, Nixon turned to Gen. Haig and appointed him to succeed H.R. Haldeman as White House chief of staff. He helped the president prepare his impeachment defense — and as Nixon was preoccupied with Watergate, Gen. Haig handled many decisions normally made by the chief executive.

On Nixon’s behalf, he also helped arrange the wiretaps of government officials and reporters, as the president tried to plug news leaks.

Gen. Haig also was said to have played a key role in persuading the president to resign. He also suggested to Gerald Ford that he pardon his predecessor for any crimes committed while in office, a pardon widely believed to have cost Ford the presidency in 1976.

Gen. Haig is survived by his wife of 60 years, Patricia; his children Alexander, Brian and Barbara; eight grandchildren; and his brother, the Rev. Francis Haig.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.