Posted: Feb. 23, 2010
"HE'S THE CABINET OFFICER, TELLING ME TO STEP ASIDE"
By Celia Cohen
Alexander Haig was nearly saved from himself by someone mostly known these days for selling cars in Delaware.
A frightening, indelible day in history forever links Haig, the combustible general and secretary of state who died Sunday at 85, with Frank Ursomarso, the chairman of the Union Park car dealerships in Wilmington.
It was March 30, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was shot and Haig seared himself in the national memory with a quirky declaration about being in charge.
The moment dominated Haig's obituaries, overshadowing a long public life in military and government office, not the least of which was his time as the White House chief of staff when he braked the Nixon administration to a stop without a bloody crash to the Republic.
If only Haig had heeded Ursomarso.
Haig was the secretary of state. Ursomarso was the White House communications director. He tried to keep Haig from making his infamous pronouncement, but Haig was not one to suffer counsel easily, especially not from subordinates.
"He did what he did," Ursomarso said as he recounted the events Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Ursomarso was a seasoned presidential aide at the time. He broke into White House politics as a volunteer advanceman for Richard Nixon through Fred Fielding, a staff member who was a fraternity brother at Gettysburg College. Ursomarso also worked in Gerald Ford's administration before returning to Washington for Reagan.
Politics, like the car dealerships, continues to be a family interest. Ursomarso's son Jim was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2004.
Ursomarso was in the White House on that Monday morning in March when Reagan, just more than two months into his presidency, went to the Hilton Hotel in Washington to give a speech. Ursomarso was having a meeting with the public affairs officials from the agencies.
"I get called out of the meeting, and I'm told there's a problem," he said.
Jim Brady, the press secretary, was shot along with the president. Larry Speakes, the deputy press secretary, was with the presidential party. Ursomarso went to the press secretary's office, where it was pandemonium.
About 20 or 30 members of the press corps were in the office, where they were not supposed to be, in the frenzy that invariably foams when there is a crisis and information is hard to come by.
"They're screaming. They're going crazy. I got a call from Larry Speakes. He says, I want you to confirm to the press there that the president has been shot and transported to the hospital," Ursomarso said.
Ursomarso climbed onto the press secretary's chair. He delivered the confirmation. "Once I said that, they just ran out of the room," he said.
Ursomarso made his way to the Situation Room in the basement, where members of the Reagan administration were gathering, but not Vice President George Bush, who was flying back from Texas. Haig became increasingly disturbed as he watched television reports conveying no sense of order at all.
"He's becoming agitated. He says, this isn't right, where's the press room?" Ursomarso said.
Haig charged upstairs with Ursomarso and David Gergen, the presidential assistant who was Ursomarso's boss, chasing behind. Ursomarso bolted past Haig to try to stop him.
"I got in between the door and him. I told him, calm down for a second, don't go in that room," Ursomarso said.
Gergen repeated Ursomarso's warning not to go in, but Haig had spent too much time as a general. He was all about command and control.
"He says to me, you step aside. He's the Cabinet officer, telling me the staff person to step aside. I step aside," Ursomarso said. "I probably should have stood my ground, but he kind of out-ranked me. I didn't know what he was going to say."
Haig went in and made his declaration for the ages. It cemented the worst impression of him.
"As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending the return of the vice president."
Ursomarso and Gergen could not figure out how to get Haig out of there. Richard Allen, the national security adviser, finally did. They all went back downstairs to the Situation Room.
It was a scene immortalized by a White House photographer. Ursomarso shared the photograph, never seen publicly before, with Delaware Grapevine. To see it, click here.
"In his mind, he was trying to do the right thing," Ursomarso said.
The stare-down outside the press room door ended a relationship that was already rocky. Ursomarso and Haig had little to do with one another afterwards, although they became involved again indirectly in the 1988 presidential campaign.
Haig was running for the Republican nomination. So was Pete du Pont, Delaware's ex-governor, and Ursomarso was part of his brain trust. Ursomarso saw Haig several times in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses, and they waved.
There were six Republicans in the field -- including George Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Haig and Pat Robertson -- all of whom du Pont wittily lumped together, calling them "the vice president, the senator, the congressman, the general and the preacher."
Du Pont came in next-to-last in Iowa. Haig, no longer in charge, was last.