WASHINGTON — He was with Richard M. Nixon on the terrifying day in 1958 when Venezuelan mobs set upon the vice president's party in Caracas, battering the windows of his limousine with pipes and baseball bats.
He was with President Dwight D. Eisenhower when Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, furious at the discovery of flights over Soviet territory by American U-2 spy planes, stalked out of a Paris conference room, wrecking a summit meeting.
A decade later, he spirited Henry A. Kissinger in and out of Paris no fewer than 15 times for clandestine meetings to discuss peace terms with officials from North Vietnam.
Now, retired Army Lt. Gen. Vernon A. Walters is 68 and, with more than four decades of government service behind him, is about to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. His nomination by President Reagan is expected to sail through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the full Senate, perhaps unanimously.
"Gen. Walters will be a strong voice for American interests in the U.N.," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to consider Walters' nomination during the first week of April.
The Administration's selection of Walters marks a decisive shift in the kind of representation the country will have in the world body--a shift toward an unusually experienced diplomat, a team player who has prided himself on the nearly invisible performance of sensitive missions around the world. It is a huge change from the ideologically outspoken style of his predecessor, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, one of the most visible and controversial U.S. representatives in the history of the United Nations.
As a result, although Walters' selection has drawn praise from moderates and professional diplomats, it has also raised concerns in some quarters--particularly among conservatives who believe that he represents a retreat from the doctrinal purity of Kirkpatrick.
Nor will the Administration find it easy to replace Walters in his current post as ambassador-at-large for Reagan, a job in which he estimates he has logged 1 million miles traveling to more than 100 countries in the last four years on missions that have gained only rare and fleeting public notice.
Speaks Seven Languages
With a command of seven languages and diplomatic experience dating back to World War II, it is possible that he has known more foreign leaders than any American official since W. Averell Harriman retired from his diplomatic travels.
Early in the Reagan Administration, he spent six fruitless hours with Fidel Castro in Cuba, exploring the possibility of improved relations between Washington and Havana. He was dispatched to Buenos Aires during the Falkland Islands war to explain to the Argentine junta why the United States found it necessary to stand with Britain.
Few weeks went by when he was not somewhere in Central America or Africa, privately protesting human rights conditions, delivering bad news on a military assistance request or bearing a complaint from Washington.
Although Walters has assiduously avoided the press, he summed up his role for the Administration in a rare interview published last December in the Foreign Service Journal:
"Sometimes I carry a message of reproof, or I carry a message of request, or I carry a message of encouragement," he said. "But, more often, I tell them that they've lost X% of their aid, or that we don't like what they are doing in one way or another. . . .
"I am not sent on meetings if success is likely. All the local authorities take care of the easy problems. One of my chief tasks is administering extreme unction just before the patient dies."
Praised by Haig
"He was, I think, the single most effective diplomat we had in the State Department during the first years of the Reagan Administration," said former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who brought Walters into the Administration. "He carried heavy water, distasteful water, and he was indispensable."
Observers inside and outside the Administration believe that, under Walters, the U.S. mission at the United Nations will become more responsive to the State Department than it was under Kirkpatrick. Despite Walters' long experience, these observers expect him to be more of a team player, less doctrinaire and less inclined than Kirkpatrick to follow a personal agenda.
"The real significance of it," Richard Bissell of the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies said, "is that he is seen by both the traditional people at the State Department and the political people at the White House as very satisfactory for the job."
For conservatives outside the government, however, Reagan's choice of Walters is seen as part of an unwelcome trend toward moderation, a trend marked by the reopening of arms control talks with the Soviet Union.