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Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2001 /4 Teves, 5762

Matt Towery

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Haig the madman? -- IN the entertainment industry, there seems to be little distinction between fact and fiction. But this blurring of the truth can sometimes be a slap in the face to history and public support for our leaders.

For example, there was the recent offhand comment during a "Today Show" interview from television's "The West Wing" faux-Oval Office, in which one of that show's cast members suggested that many Americans view the popular program's "president" to be the true president of the United States. He further suggested that some folks might sometimes wish the character, Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, were the real president.

Oh, really? I thought George W. was enjoying a near 90-percent approval rating. Talk about out of touch.

And that leads us to a current piece of drivel issuing out of Tinseltown -- the raw and unbalanced character assassination of former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Showtime's made-for-cable movie "The Day Reagan Was Shot."

As portrayed in the film, it is true that in March 1981 Ronald Reagan was shot outside of the Washington Hilton and came much closer to dying than was ever made public. And, yes, on that day, a "take charge" Al Haig rushed into the White House briefing room and inaccurately stated that he was, after the vice president, next in line to serve as president should a transfer of power be needed. And it is also true that then-National Security Adviser Richard Allen recorded that day's contentious conversations in the White House Situation Room.

But it is here that the facts seem to meld with Hollywood's traditional dose of artistic license.

The film portrays virtually everyone in the Reagan White House as being predisposed to viewing Haig as a madman. Certain portions of the film's dialogue are true to Allen's sneaky and probably compromising recording. But dramatic interpretation provides viewers with endless rolls of the eyes and signals of desperation between key figures, all over the issue of Haig's words and behavior. Anyone but an insider would come away from the program with the impression that Alexander Haig was a first-class nut.

He was quite the opposite. On that fateful day in March, Haig, who had once held top rank in the military and kept the nation secure while running the White House during Nixon's final days, was the most experienced official in the White House. He knew that actions by an equally admirable, but then-considerably greener Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, had heightened the alert status of U.S. troops around the world, potentially causing great anxiety for our 1981 enemy, the Soviet Union.

Haig was concerned about stabilizing a touch-and-go situation. When he witnessed then-deputy press secretary Larry Speakes say on live television that he could not answer the question of "who is running the government," Haig rushed to the pressroom. He recognized that it could invite immediate danger if America appeared leaderless.

Then he said it -- the famous "As for now I'm in control here" statement that included a constitutionally inaccurate declaration about his own authority. And for that one misstatement, and for his powerful personality, Al Haig paid the price with the media, his detractors, and now, Hollywood.

Never mind the fact that then-Vice President George Bush, who was traveling at the time of the Reagan shooting, was not in Washington and could not be "in control." Or the fact that then-House Speaker Tip O'Neil, a Democrat who was next in line of succession behind Bush, was not a part of the White House crisis management team. And on top of all this, the Soviets were conducting military field maneuvers that day!

The Reagan film doesn't disclose that most who were a part of the day's discussions, including Richard Allen, say that all turned out well.

The film also fails to indicate that its hero, Secretary Weinberger, later faced serious potential criminal charges for a separate matter. Everyone in Washington with any sense knew that Weinberger was innocent. Thankfully, his name was later cleared.

But none of that matters in Hollywood. A brash leader like Alexander Haig, who actually tried to protect his country, was simply torn apart to provide entertainment. These TV "charges" against him will never be dropped.

But in these days of tragic, shocking and destabilizing world events, we should take time to thank the Al Haigs of our past -- no matter what Hollywood thinks -- not least so that today's leaders can protect us without fearing future smear attacks.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate