WASHINGTON — Bowing to the persuasive powers of the "great communicator," Margaret M. Heckler agreed today to give up her job as secretary of Health and Human Services to become ambassador to Ireland.
President Reagan, announcing her decision while an unsmiling Heckler stood beside him, denounced as "malicious gossip" and "falsehoods" reports that Heckler was forced from her Cabinet job because of White House staff discontent with her performance.
Indeed, he said it was her decision to leave the Cabinet.
"She has done a fine job at HHS," the President said in an appearance in the White House briefing room one day after he asked Heckler to take the ambassadorship.
"This was my idea," Reagan said of the job switch.
'She Will Be Great'
"We have a need for an ambassador and Ireland is getting very impatient," Reagan said. "I thought she might like a change of pace. . . . I think she will be just great."
Reagan said he would not have given her a diplomatic post if she had not done a good job at HHS, the largest agency in the government.
"I certainly have never thought of the embassy as a dumping ground," Reagan said.
"If she hadn't been doing as well as she had been doing, I wouldn't have picked Ireland," Reagan said with a grin, an unspoken reference to his own Irish-American heritage.
Heckler said she has enjoyed working for Reagan. "Now that you have offered me the post of ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, I see a new opportunity for public service," she added.
She said Reagan had offered her the choice whether to stay on or take the ambassadorship.
Reagan was asked if she could she have stayed on if she wanted to.
"Yes," he responded.
He said no successor had been selected.
Asked why she changed her mind, she said "the great communicator" had persuaded her. This was a reference to Reagan.
Last month when rumors were circulated that she would be offered the post in Ireland, she said it was a "lovely job--for someone else."
But today, she said, "I looked upon this assignment with new eyes having heard the presentation that he made and having also his assurance that it was my choice to stay on as secretary of HHS or become ambassador to Ireland."
She said it would have been "irresponsible to have said no to the President."
Asked if presidential Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan had "forced her out of the White House," Heckler said, "The President and I are the only two to have discussed the issue of my service both in the Cabinet and my service as ambassador to Ireland."
Reagan's invitation, Page 10.