In 2003, Gerald S. Strober and Deborah Hart Strober published an oral history of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the third in a series of such books. (The others concerned the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and the reign of Elizabeth II.) One section of the book concerned John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of the fortieth President in 1981, and the press briefing held shortly after it in which Gen. Alexander M. Haig, the Secretary of State, said: “I am in control here at the White House, pending the return of the vice-president.”
Referring to Gen. Haig’s briefing, veteran Republican strategist Lyn Nofziger told the Strobers: “That will be the third paragraph of his obituary.”
Nofziger died in 2006, so this morning, when Gen. Haig passed away, he was not around to see his prediction be fulfilled on a number of websites. The New York Times was first – or tried to be first. The initial version of Tim Weiner’s obituary there mentioned Nofziger’s statement and said he had predicted the third graf (to use the old-time newspaper lingo) “would detail” the briefing – which he doesn’t say, at least in the Strober book. The obit’s third paragraph then mentioned the briefing, and the fourth described it in detail. Some wag at the paper pointed out this discrepancy and within an hour or so the article was reformatted so that the details were given in the third paragraph.
During the rest of the day, one obit after another told the story of the 1981 briefing in the third paragraph. Some of these, like the obits at Politics Daily, the BBC website and the Associated Press, didn’t refer to Nofziger’s prediction. Others, such as the one in the Times of London, did.
But several newspapers bucked the trend. The London Telegraph devoted the third paragraph of its obit to Gen. Haig’s effort to mediate the dispute between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands – probably a lesser chapter of his career, but obviously of interest to British readers.
And James Hohmann’s obit at the Washington Post also did not get on the briefing bandwagon. Instead, the third paragraph in the first online version discussed Gen. Haig’s efforts to keep the Nixon Administration on an even keel in the darkest days of Watergate. And, happily, this was replaced by what I think Gen. Haig would truly have been delighted to read as the third paragraph of his obituary:
In a statement, President Obama said Gen. Haig “exemplified our finest warrior-diplomat tradition of those who dedicate their lives to public service.”
That said, the General had a prodigious sense of humor – it was no accident that he counted iconoclastic comedian Mort Sahl among his friends – so he probably would have been amused at the striving of so many media outlets to fulfil Nofziger’s prophecy.
(Another article worth reading is the AP’s account of reactions to Gen. Haig’s death, including a quote from the Post’s Bob Woodward in which he points out that the General was almost the only individual whom he made a point of ruling out as being “Deep Throat” before he identified Mark Felt as DT in 2005.)