A powerful black sedan sped through the capital chasing two American flags whipping above the hood. A short motorcade kept up behind in single file. The streets were essentially empty of other automobiles; a smattering of foreign jalopies, rows of miasmatic buses at the curb. This was typical on any given day in 1981. Traffic was mainly bicycles, thousands and thousands of them pedaled by uniformly-costumed commuters; men and women buttoned up to their chins in ill-fitting tunics; green ones and just-as-baggy blue ones. Many of them wore caps adorned with a red plastic star in front.
Daylight spilled inside the Hongqi limousine from a turbid sky through windows that framed what looked, from my vantage point, like a newsreel streaming by. I sat on a jump-seat facing the secretary of state; the two of us alone in back. He was in shirtsleeves, shuffling loose-leaf documents on his lap and casting glances through half-readers raked down the bridge of his nose at a newspaper laid out beside him on top of his jacket. He seemed distracted: a sigh, a deep breath, a backhanded brushing-away of his tie. I lowered my Leica.
“Remember that story in the Post,” I said, “a few weeks ago about the ex-special ops guys who got blown before they could cross the Mekong into Laos, that POW rescue-mission thing?”
“Yeah?”, he said without looking up but with an inflection that implied anxiousness about what might come next.
“I was one of them,” I said. “I trained for weeks in that camp in Florida to go along and bring back pictures.”
“I’ll just forget you told me that, Zimbo,” he said.
Zimbo. That was my nickname amongst other photographers and editors. It was more distinctive, I suupose, than Tom, and it rolled of the tongue with one less syllable than Zimberoff. Some of the people I photographed came up with it on their own.
I’ll keep the personal details behind that exchange close to my vest. It’s a touchy topic and requires tortuous explication; a tale better told within reach of a bottle of scotch than fixed in print. More to the point, there’s no singular portrait to illustrate it, yet each of my memoirs is a portrait and its backstory. What matters to this story is how I came to photograph Alexander Haig, in the first place, and why I felt comfortable confiding in him about something rather sensitive while sequestered in the back of a long lacquered limo hurtling through a foreign city we still called Peking.
Two years earlier, in the winter of 1979, I was kicking around New York City, out in the cold professionally and couch surfing personally; LA was still home. My recent adventures in Panama afforded a freelance relationship with Time, but I hadn’t yet settled in with one photo agency or another to represent me exclusively and syndicate my work. Then Sygma Photos and I agreed informally on an ad hoc trial run, to cover NATO war games: a Cold War exercise in rapid deployment called Operation Reforger (REturn FORces GERmany) that airlifted tens of thousands of American troops to staging areas with pre-positioned mechanized armor on the West German/East German border, toe to toe with Soviet forces at a place called the Fulda Gap. M-60 Patton battle tanks, M113 armored personal carriers (APCs), AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters with UH-60 Blackhawks and CH-47 Chinooks for combat transport, plus A-10 Warthog close-support jet aircraft were situated in laagers, waiting for “the balloon to go up.”
To keep costs down, as much as add to my photo story, I hitched a ride overseas on a US Air Force C-141 Starlifter ferrying troops from Fort Hood, Texas to Karlsruhe, Germany with a pitstop in the Azores, islands 850 miles off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. On our nighttime approach to refuel, after hours of monotony in an enormous cockpit, replete with bunks for alternating flight crews, a bored young Air Force Reserve captain, the pilot, asked me if I had ever flown a four-engine jet.
“What?,” I said. “Of course not. No”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Nope,” he said. “Nothin’ to it.” He got up and motioned me over to the pilot’s chair on the port side. “Just sit here and put your hands here, on the yoke [a half steering wheel that moved forward and backward]. It’s just like driving a car. When you’re ready, flip this red switch — up.”
I got harnessed in and then, craning my neck to see past a welter of backlit analog dials and gauges, looked out through the narrow window in front of me. I could see nothing. It was total black out there. I leaned back, took a deep breath, swallowed, and flipped the switch (auto-pilot OFF). Immediately, the nose of the big plane dove down. I pulled back on the yoke, and the nose pitched back up. Whoa! Too much. Okay, back down again. Then up again. I received a quick tutorial about using ailerons and rudder control to keep a straight-and-level flight path. No turning! But I was winging my way at nearly 600mph on the dipsey-doodle run, eight miles above the Atlantic Ocean at night, with one hundred and fifty combat-ready soldiers on board, armed in full battle rattle, getting airsick and pounding on the cockpit door, demanding to know what the hell was going on. Captain Court Martial (if anyone ratted him out) simply told me to handle the yoke with a lighter touch. I got the giant bird level. I sat there for about fifteen or twenty minutes more, “flying” the Starlifter until we came within radio range of the Azores tower. The captain took over, lined us up with the runway, landed, refueled, and took off again. That was it for my air force career. The co-pilot and navigation crew thought this was all pretty funny. So did I, at the time, frankly.
The rest of my Reforger experience was like going back in time, to slog through ice and snow during the Battle of the Bulge but without any danger of getting shot by the enemy. Actually, I helped save one soldier’s life.
On February 22, 1979, the infantry convoy I was accompanying stopped in a rural valley near Ansbach, West Germany. Private Philamon Laseter stepped off an APC to take a leak and was hit by a Volkswagen when he tried to cross the two-lane road. He lay bleeding from his head, semi-conscious and unable to move his limbs. He got first-aid for shock but there seemed little else we could do. It was getting dark and very cold; very late, too, for Laseter. He wasn’t likely to survive if we moved him in an open, bumpy jeep — who knew how far? — to the closest hospital. An officer tried to call for help on his walkie-talkie but couldn’t beam a radio signal out of the valley. Off in the distance, I heard a helicopter; getting louder, getting closer. I grabbed my fast-recycling camera flash and aimed a Morse-code SOS into the sky: short pop!-pop!-pop! . . . long POP! — POP — POP! . . . short pop!-pop!-pop! . . . over and over. The helo banked a turn. It landed. The pilot assessed the situation and ascended to radio for a “dust-off” (medevac) helo. I was awarded a written citation personally by General George S. Blanchard, Commander in Chief of VII Corps, US Army Europe, and my mug made the front page of The Stars and Stripes newspaper distributed to American armed forces worldwide. I also got to meet General George S. Patton IV, son of the General Patton.
Days later I met an army 1st lieutenant who must have been related to air force Captain Court Martial because he let me drive an APC, armed with a fully-loaded Browning 50-cal. machine gun, at full speed toward a Soviet forward lookout post sitting on the border at the Fulda Gap; something he said his troops routinely did for sport, just to watch the “Rooskies” get wide-eyed through their binoculars before they scurried for their Kalashinikovs. Of course, our boys would slam the differential-clutch, braking hard on one side of this two-track vehicle at the last second, as did I, just before the rules of engagement might have made for an unhappy ending, skidding the vehicle into a 180-degree turn and sending up a rooster tail of muddy slush and snow as we hightailed it back. I wouldn’t say the Russians were too disciplined to do something that reckless; they just faced a different kind of consequence if they got caught.
At one point, embedded with airborne troops, I stayed in a former Nazi Luftwaffe barracks at the semi-abandoned Tempelhof Airport in the heart of Berlin. One could see where swastikas had been blown off the façade by Allied occupiers. I was uneasy, Jewish heritage and all, sleeping there, claustrophobic within austere walls still whispering a concrete account of genocidal violence. On a visit to East Berlin with several American officers, we went through Checkpoint Charlie in a bus. Stasi officers armed with sub-machine guns came on board to give us the evil eye: “Papiere bitte!” On the east side of The Wall, despite the snow, it was gray everywhere you looked; and dead quiet for a capitol city. East Berlin looked frightening in a minimalist sort of way: what one didn’t see. The 2015 Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks, “Bridge of Spies,” got the look just right. At a Soviet Red Army memorial cemetery, amidst gloriously belicose bronze statues, I bought twelve picture postcards and wrote the same message on the back of each one: Greetings from under the jackboot of oppression in Soviet-occupied East Berlin. I bought stamps and mailed them all to my address in Los Angeles. Two got there, months later.
So it was, when I got back to the States, that my experience with Reforger got me hired by Look magazine to photograph NATO’s outgoing military boss, Alexander Meigs Haig Jr., a US Army four-star general and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (the SACEUR). He was about to retire from the army and was floating the idea of “throwing his helmet into the ring” to run for president. Sygma’s CEO, Eliane Laffont, had only recently resigned to become Photo Editor at Look. It was she who sent me back overseas, to Belgium.
When I arrived in Brussels that October, I took an airport taxi to my billet in a bachelor officers quarters on the NATO campus. To cover a story like this, I was issued Pentagon “orders” designating me a “GS-15;” equivalent in status to a brigadier general with all the trappings. I had to present my orders wherever I went. As a 28-year-old, that was good fun. Haig’s billet, so to speak, was Gendebien Castle, the official residence of the SACEUR, just outside the medieval town of Mons, forty miles away.
When I got to the BOQ, I couldn’t find my room. I stopped a few passers-by in various military uniforms to ask for directions. None of them spoke English, and neither my high school German or French did me any good. I hailed a guy in plain clothes walking up a flight of stairs. “Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Do you speak English?” This bumptious SOB executed a perfectly sharp about-face, looked down his nose, and said, “I beg your pardon, I am English” with oh-so-posh elocution. He pivoted again and continued up the stairs. Eventually, I found my bunk.
The next day, as I was preparing to drive to Gendebien Castle, I was told that General Haig would be flying to London to appear on William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” television show. Major Seth Hudgins, Haig’s adjutant, asked if I wanted to cover the trip. So off I flew, with Haig and his staff, from Brussels to London in an army jet. That’s when we met. I was eager to meet Buckley, too, although it was only to shake his hand and make some snapshots. But I was also uncomfortable because Buckley, founding editor of the National Review, was America’s most effete but eloquent spokesman for an arch brand of politically conservative values that, today, would be described as white supremacist. I admired Buckley for his erudition and, at the same time, reviled him for his politics. I learned in high school about his famous 1965 Cambridge debate with James Baldwin, who, by the way, demolished Buckley’s argument by popular vote in the Cambridge Union pit.
When we all got back to Belgium, I spent nearly a week as the fly on the wall, accompanying Haig to meetings, inspecting troops, working in his office, and puttering around off-duty at home with his wife and daughter, Pat and Barbara, doing what any typical American familiy living in a European castle might do; but a family whose head-of-household responsibilities included taking the world to war.
November 4, 1979 was a Sunday. Haig, in civilian clothes, was slouched comfortably in a leather armchair in the corner of a picture-book study — a room you’d expect to see in “Downton Abbey.” Pat and Barbara were in the kitchen making us hotdogs — seriously! — for lunch.The telephone rang. He reached over to a side table and picked up the receiver. I took no notes, just pictures. But to the best of my recollection, here’s what happened next.
“Haig here,” he said, then listened for a few seconds. “Thank you. Standing by.”
Haig sat up ramrod straight when next he said, “Good afternoon, sir.” [listening] They did what?! [listening] Any casualties? [listening] Yes, sir. The Marines? [listening] But . . . [listening] how do we . . . [listening] any additional . . . [listening] did you . . . ? [long period listening].
The SACEUR took a pencil and wrote some notes on a pad and said, “Of course, Mr. President. I’m on it. Thank you, sir.” He hung up.
“Zimbo,” he said, “That was the president. I guess you got that. The embassy in Tehran . . . Overrun. . . Everyone, fifty-two American diplomats and citizens, taken hostage.”
One of the things I miss about the privilege of covering these kinds of photo stories is not just the excitement of being close to history in the making but, by working with the protagonists, feeling like I play a small part myself by recording it for posterity. The camera pays for a postgraduate course in, well, everything. One gets the details in real time. For instance, I learned that the small contingent of marines guarding any US embassy (three armed and on duty, ten off duty in Tehran that day) is charged with using delaying tactics against assailants until the host country’s security forces arrive, as they are expected to do, to quell an insurrection. But this was an unprecedented situation; there was no cavalry coming to the rescue. A decision for the few marines to open gunfire on 3,000 unarmed Iranians surrounding the embassy, mostly students, was up to the State Department security officer, a civilian. He ruled out a lethal response as imprudent and ineffective, authorizing only tear gas to ward off the invaders just long enough for diplomats to destroy sensitive documents and cipher equipment.
The SACEUR said he had to get back to Brussels and I could tag along but — he winked — he had “some top-secret shit” to do once we got there. “You’ll have to entertain yourself for a while,” he said. Major Hudgins made sure, however, that I had further access to the general before I flew home a few days later.
I lost touch with General Haig while he was wrapped up with Iran and, thereafter, with his army retirement, to take the reins of United Technologies Corporation as its new CEO, and the matter of his exploration of presidential possibilities, until the story picks up exactly one year later.
On Wednesday, November 5, 1980, the day after Ronald Reagan denied Jimmy Carter a second term and clinched the presidency for himself, in no small part due to Carter’s ill-fated handling of the Iran hostage crisis, I was confident he would appoint Al Haig to his cabinet. Haig bowed out of the race before it began in earnest, and I predicted that, if Reagan won, Haig would be tapped as either secretary of defense or secretary of state. I telephoned Western Union that morning and dictated a telegram: Mr. Secretary, when do you want me in Washington to do your portrait?
It was an audacious thing to do because that wasn’t yet Haig’s rung on the ladder; he was still General Haig. I had to think twice. My telegram could have been dismissed as presumptuous flattery, a foolish gesture simply ignored. But the upside could be a photojournalistic scoop worth tens of thousands of dollars in magazine publication fees plus career prestige and more photo assignments. I knew where to reach him. I knew he would see it. I relied on the fact that, for more than one hundred and ten years at that point, telegrams conveyed messages of joy, sorrow, hope, and success delivered either by special courier or the United States Postal Service in a familiar yellow envelope that screamed THIS IS IMPORTANT! In retrospect, telegrams punched far above the weight of a tweet; not publicly, of course, but with fewer characters and greater impact; until 2006, that is, when the Western Union telegram was vanquished not just by Twitter but ultimately by email and FedEx combined.
I was prepared for no news. But good news rebounded quickly: come on down! It was a call from someone on Haig’s staff at United Technologies. It was also clear, now, that Haig would be secretary of state. I booked my flight to Washington, in January of 1981, to cover his confirmation hearing in the Senate. An assignment from Time paid for my trip. Sygma, my agent now, would share the production costs of my private photoshoot with Haig, and we’d split all subsequent publication fees for residuals (stock photos) for months to come. Sygma would negotiate the fees with magazines worldwide.
This was my first time on Capitol Hill. It was exciting as all hell to sit on the floor in front of the dais in a Senate hearing room along with a gaggle of other photographers and TV crews amid the bright lights, aiming my lens at the witnesses. One day, I was near a senators-only elevator in the Capitol, when the brass doors parted like theater curtains to reveal — ta da! — John Glenn in a sharp blue suit, white shirt, and red bow tie. Glenn was a Korean War wingnut with mind-warping courage and a righteously moral disposition who became America’s first Earth-orbiting rocket man. One of NASA’s original Mercury Seven astronauts was now a senator from Ohio. I was eleven years old when he got shoehorned into a tin can, then blasted off the face of the planet toward the stars and into history. Right then, it was I who was starstruck. No movie star — not even meeting the president — affected me like that. I had no particular fondness for Senator Glenn’s politics; nor Haig’s for that matter. But I admired Glenn personally. And I think liked says it better for the way I felt about Haig. (I wish I had asked Senator Glenn to sit for a portrait.)
After the hearings, Haig got settled in at Foggy Bottom. I made preparations with the State Department staff to optimize the time I would have with him for our photoshoot. I was given a tour of the Harry S Truman Building, including the secretary’s official inner sanctum. I chose the Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room on the 8th floor for our location. (Jefferson was our first secretary of state.) There was plenty of space to work in. It’s where visiting heads of state, foreign ministers, and distinguished guests of the United States Government are entertained (other than state dinners at the White House). Clement Conger, Curator of Diplomatic Reception Rooms and Curator of the White House, allowed me to shuffle furniture around (to some extent); the kinds of things that would make any “Antiques Roadshow” fan faint dead away. Here were George Washington’s porcelain dinnerware, Paul Revere’s personal silver, and the desk on which the Treaty of Paris was signed, in 1783, to end the American Revolution — next to my camera crap strewn all over the floor.
With three days to go and counting, I got a phone call at my hotel from Patricia Haig. She apologized on behalf of her husband to say some last-minute official duties would eat into my allotted camera time. (She knew how much this meant to me and, I guess, she remembered how much I praised her hot dogs.) Instead of an hour, she asked if we could get by with twenty minutes. Instead of postponing the whole thing, I said yes; but only if she helped. She agreed to lay out six different suit jackets and six different neckties (already tied) and convince the boss to cooperate in a circus of quick changes.
My plan was to create a number of different “photo-ops,” all at the same time, to accommodate as many magazines as possible. (No magazine will publish a photograph on its cover if it isn’t exclusive to them.) I also had to consider that photo requests were bound to come through Sygma for covers and stock photo licenses long into the future. I bought six different-color paper backdrops, cut them to size, stacked them, and taped them, one in front of another, to a pair of support stands in the Jefferson Room. I could yank one color down to reveal the next one in succession as Haig swapped his tie and his jacket. I could make each photograph of the Secretary look different — eighteen ways — with wardrobe changes and various poses against each backdrop, moving in for tight headshots, pulling back for three-quarter angles. But I left no slack to tweak my lighting effects; they were set.
Haig walked in, on time. But time was short. So was what I had to say, suggesting we get right to work. He was a natty dresser but I was used to photographing him in either green army fatigues wrapped in a parka, cinched at the waist with a general’s ceremonial belt and buckle — very simple; or in full mess dress bedizened with bow tie, epaulets, and medals — the military version of a tuxedo; or the standard service uniform he wore to his office. All he needed to make an impression, though, were those four stars. His wardrobe changes were laid out ahead of time, as planned. And he seemed to enjoy the rigmarole, a choreographic departure from photo sessions he’d done before. He expressed his appreciation, as a military man, for the gumption it took to plan and execute the logistics and still have time to make a formal portrait. The latter was as much to please myself as for publication. I pre-positioned extra electronic strobe lights and another camera on a tripod in front of a Chippendale chair and Thomas Jefferson’s statue, in the background, holding the Declaration of Independence. (It was a marble reproduction of the Pierre-Jean David d’Angers bronze.) I don’t remember asking the secretary to assume the Jeffersonian pose but it worked for me. FLASH! I think it might have caused some minor embarrassment later on, a few raised eyebrows from his critics. I shot color for my clients; it’s what they almost always wanted. The black-and-white version was for me. Ultimately, Haig’s self-discipline made it possible for us to finish in twenty minutes flat.
I flew back to New York to process my film and drop it off with Sygma. At the Time-Life Photo Lab I met legendary Life staff photographer Alfred Eisenstadt who looked at my black-and-white contact sheets and said something nice. That was a thrill. Many people remember him for his famous picture of the sailor dipping and kissing a young woman in Times Square on V-J Day. Another day or so later I flew home to LA to get on with my career before I disappeared John LeCarré style for a paramilitary training camp in Florida — that POW thing. I was incommunicado for weeks. No one, neither family nor friends knew where I was, except for a platoon of grisly soldiers of fortune, former green berets, who were ostensibly supported by the Defense Intelligence Agency. And Eliane Laffont. She knew. She was back at the helm of Sygma because Look magazine, like Life magazine, had finally folded, having persevered too long unprofitably, trying to compete with the likes of 60 Minutes on television. Eliane was sworn to secrecy unless I missed a deadline to check in. But Florida turned into a fiasco. A putative mission to rescue POWs in Laos fell into chaos, maybe lunacy, during the transition from the Carter to the Reagan Administration. I’ll tell you the name of this train wreck: Operation Velvet Hammer. It was dangerous. It was secret. I steeled myself for ill-fated consequences. It was to be a private-sector-funded covert act of war. And I was embedded with these guys. I was given a choice of whether or not to carry a weapon along with my cameras. I chose to do so. Not at all kosher for a journalist but pragmatic; the other side made no such distinctions. Then we were leaked to The Washington Post which published names, including mine. Game over.
The story petered out for the time being — gladly. I was disillusioned by that escapade but happy to be homeward bound again, flying from Miami to LA with a stopover in New York. But the date was March 30, 1981: Reagan got shot. I heard the news as soon as we touched down at La Guardia. I called Eliane from a pay phone. She already had me booked on the Eastern Airlines shuttle to Washington to join the news coverage.
From National Airport in DC, I called Mike Evans, the White House Photographer, then took a cab to his house. Mike, still in shock, was with the president when it happened. Other friends of his were already there drinking, watching a news-clip looping on TV, playing out the scene of mayhem over and over. We concluded that if Reagan hadn’t raised his hand to wave at bystanders, he wouldn’t have caught the ricocheted bullet that punctured his lung. It would have gone past him and struck Mike.
Something stirred at the boundary of my awareness; a thought that was not quite there but I could tell it was not quite right. I couldn’t escape the fatuous suspicions that crept into my head and grew on the trellis of my imagination. Perhaps I’d been reading too much Robert Ludlum and John LeCarré. At any rate, I was still reeling over the unexpected collapse of my POW story and paramilitary misadventure. Without given time to reflect, I was tossed into the turmoil of covering a presidential assassination attempt, in which my friend and fellow photographer had narrowly escaped getting shot himself, maybe killed. Words from Yeats also came to mind, close enough in context:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . . etc.
The new president was just gunned down on the street like John Lennon only four months earlier; dying for all anybody knew. And it hadn’t been that long since the release of a haunting movie, the political thriller, “Three Days of the Condor,” directed by Sidney Pollack. I had recently worked for Pollack on another film. I was booked to work on yet another one, albeit with a different director but starring the actor who played the CIA killer in “Condor.” Real. Surreal. Unreal. Events unreeling. Mind still reeling. Something unpleasant rode on the air, then lingered like smoke in pockets of dread. I grabbed my cameras and left Mike’s house for the hospital to stand vigil for Reagan with the rest of the Washington press corps.
Haig was in the White House when the shooting occurred. The president’s condition was not yet clear, to him, to the public, or to anyone else in government. Vice President Bush was unaware of what had just happened; he was on board Air Force Two headed for Texas. First things first, the secretary radioed the VP and got his plane turned back to Washington. Then he convened a meeting of Reagan’s senior advisors with the National Security Council. Next, because the nation — indeed the world — was in an intense state of anxiety, he realized someone had to make a public statement. James Brady, the president’s press secretary, suffered a grave head wound in the attack. (Brain damage left him paralyzed and barely able to speak.) His deputy, Larry Speakes, had just fumbled a reporter’s question in the White House Briefing Room about who was actually running the government; he had no answer. Haig heard this and scribbled a note, passed on to Speakes, ordering him to leave immediately. Then Haig stepped to the podium, visibly shaken, about to utter one of the most ill-famed statements in American history, the bane of his career.
Haig answered the reporter’s question: “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. As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president; and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.” The only words heard were “I’m in control here,” which was mistaken for rodomontade.
Haig’s bald ambition and imperiousness already rubbed many politicos and reporters the wrong way, ever since he was Richard Nixon’s White House chief of staff during the denouement of Watergate. That proved hard to rub off. He’d been given the stamp of “president whisperer,” a Machiavelli who engineered the resignation of his alcohol-addled commander-in-chief by convincing him he’d be pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford; which, of course, he was. Whether that outcome was good or bad for the country is still debated. Nevertheless, after Nixon’s departure, Haig stayed on long enough as President Ford’s chief of staff to help him defeat Reagan in the 1976 Republican presidential primaries. And Haig got what he wanted: his recall to active duty with a promotion to Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Nearly five years on, Reagan’s fiercely loyal “Kitchen Cabinet,” friends and advisors who’d been by his side since he was governor of California, were loath to forgive and forget. They didn’t hide their disdain for Haig’s treatment of presidential-candidate Reagan; and they were incredulous of any rationale for elevating a high-handed conniver like Haig, as they saw him, from the army to secretary of state now that Reagan was president. Some of them now served as presidential cabinet members themselves. Haig called them “the Neanderthals.” The stage was set for political high drama.
In the Briefing Room the secretary was mistaken to say “Constitutionally.” The Constitution puts the secretary of state fourth in line, after the speaker of the House. He knew the order of succession. He later insisted he meant to reassure world leaders and throw a wet towel on any itchy nuclear trigger fingers. He had been the SACEUR, after all, responsible for the defense of the entire European continent. He was a known quantity to foreign powers. Nobody else was. The Reagan Administration wasn’t yet a hundred days old. While the VP was up in the air, quite literally, Al Haig was taking care of business. He was “in control,” correctly so, trying to demonstrate that a sense of order prevailed over panic. But the Kitchen Cabinet had their knives out. They exploited some partially suppressed guffaws from correspondents in the Briefing Room and continued to spin what Haig said into headlines. His gaffe gave his enemies the shot they craved to kill his good standing with the president and to get him ousted. But it would be a while. First, China.
Incidentally, I didn’t get to photograph Haig’s Time cover, precipitated by his infelicitous press briefing. The honor went to David Hume Kennerly who was their man in the White House. He had been Gerald Ford’s Official White House Photographer.
By June of 1981, Mao Zedong had been dead for five years. China’s de-facto leader, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, uncertain about an evolving relationship with the United States, was ready to talk about bi-lateral trade and “opening up” China to a worldwide capitalist economy. Ronald Reagan was eager to engage. It seemed wise for him to send someone senior to Beijing to get the ball rolling, someone who had a history of dealing with the Chinese leadership and knew them personally. That would be Al Haig.
In 1972, as Henry Kissinger’s protégé, then Colonel Haig was assigned to duty as Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Nixon White House. Reporting directly to Kissinger, the National Security Advisor, Haig was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to lead a secret delegation to China, an advance team for Nixon’s historic visit later that year. In the wake of that epochal success on behalf of the president, Nixon propelled Haig further up the ranks and, raising eyebrows for its lack of precedence, gave him a second, third, and fourth star. Haig leapfrogged two hundred and forty other generals eligible for promotion, then left the White House for the Pentagon to become the army’s vice chief of staff. But Nixon soon brought him back to replace H.R. Haldeman, his own White House chief of staff, who was forced to resign because of complicity in the Watergate coverup. Haig was obliged to leave the army to serve the president in this capacity but quickly became comfortable in his new role. It was he who informed Nixon (heard on the Watergate Tapes) about the publication of the Pentagon Papers and helped try to suppress them. He was also accused of being complicit in Nixon’s illegal wiretaps of reporters and government officials.
Nine years after successfully establishing Nixon’s diplomatic back channel to China, Haig, now working for Reagan, went back; this time with the formidable diplomatic portfolio of secretary of state. It had been less than ten weeks since the president survived the attempt on his life. Haig didn’t know it, yet, but this trip to China would be his last. The Kitchen Cabinet continued back-stabbing in earnest.
I was home in LA that spring when I heard about Haig’s imminent China junket. I rang my contacts at the State Department and asked if I could get some exclusive photo ops with the secretary if showed up in Beijing. It was thumbs up. I obtained a visa from the Chinese consulate and a guaranteed publication fee from Time (negotiated by Sygma), and was wheels up to China within weeks.
In Beijing, I was met at the airport by my Communist Party minders and taken to my hotel, a model of 1950’s Stalinist architecture sculpted from spalling slabs of concrete. But there was something satisfying about my accommodations, a proletarian simplicity that fulfilled what dauntless travelers expected prior to globalization: arriving someplace that felt truly foreign when venturing overseas. It was 1981 but the descriptions of living quarters in Orwell’s “1984,” published in 1949, seemed avant garde by comparison. Years later, returning to Beijing for a commercial photo assignment, I was disappointed to stay in a steel-and-glass hotel skyscraper whose bellhops wore English name tags and the lobby spewed Bing Crosby Christmas songs. But that afternoon, after checking into my cell block, I collected my press credentials and joined the international corps of journalists at the Great Hall of the People for Haig’s first meeting with Deng. It was there, while leaving the meeting, on the steps of the Great Hall, that Haig invited me to hop into his limo and accompany him to the Diaoyutai diplomatic complex and guesthouse on Yuyuantai Lake where he and Mrs. Haig were staying. Photographs ensued.
Some Beijing highlights that June were a state banquet inside the Great Hall of the People, hosted by Deng Xiaopeng. I remember far too many toasts with a Chinese liqueur, dating from the Qing Dynasty, called Maotai. It came in red-beribboned porcelain bottles, each one about the size of a hand grenade and packing just about the same wallop. The next evening, the press corps was invited to see the Chinese Opera with its spectacular costumes, traditional music, and dance.
AA day or so later, I took a bus ride to the Great Wall with several other gobsmacked colleagues and Party officials. Few other people, certainly no foreign tourists, were there. However, domestic tourists came regularly from rural China to visit the big city. I was on a walking excursion through Tiananmen Square, making photographs, when I caught sight of one such group of roughly dressed Chinese stepping off a bus. One of them was apparently delegated, or dared, to approach me. He closed the twenty yards between us on the balls of his feet, touched my sleeve, and scampered back to his friends. I suppose they had never before seen a European of American foreigner in the flesh.
Later, alone again with the secretary, I asked what it was like for one man to confidently carry the burden of representing an entire nation into a roomful of conflicting interests, and figure out how and where to start agreeing with each other, to make decisions that are acceptable to billions of individuals. He was quick with an honest if somewhat facetious answer. To paraphrase, It’s like walking into a Chinese restaurant, he said. I’ve studied the menu. I’ve consulted chefs who know the recipes. So I pick one dish from Column A, something to go along from Column B, and finish with a choice from Column C. When the food comes to the table, you hope the choices you’ve made go well with the choices your partners have made. The lazy Susan goes around and you share.
Before I left China, I referred Haig to the paragraph printed in every American passport that states, The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen(s) / national(s) of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection. I asked him to sign it. He did. But when I tried to pass through customs back in the States, I was taken aside by the authorities and harangued about “defacing” a U.S. passport. They wouldn’t let me in, until I whipped out all of my press passes and convinced them it was the real deal.