WASHINGTON — President Reagan, reacting swiftly to the Tower Commission's indictment of his conduct of his Iran- contra policy, accepted the resignation Friday of White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and replaced him with former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr.
Baker, 61, the former Republican senator from Tennessee whose genial style contrasts sharply with the imperious Regan, abandoned his own potential 1988 presidential campaign to take over a White House staff that has been rocked by scandal.
"The President asked me to accept the most sensitive position in his personal entourage and to be his chief of staff, to organize the White House on his behalf," Baker said. "I didn't see how I could turn that down."
Regan, 68, who had become the most powerful White House aide in three decades only to bear a large part of the Tower Commission's blame for mismanaging the Iran-contra affair, gave Reagan a resignation letter that was stunning in its brevity.
"Dear Mr. President," Regan wrote, "I hereby resign as Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. Respectfully yours, Donald T. Regan."
Virtually all of Reagan's other official and unofficial advisers, including Nancy Reagan, had urged Regan's resignation as a vital step if the President is to remain effective during the final two years of his Administration.
Years of Experience
With the choice of Baker, the President opted for a chief of staff who offers many of the qualities that critics complained were lacking in Regan: years of experience in Washington, long and warm ties to members of the House and Senate and a proven ability to get along with the wide range of conflicting forces that operate in Washington.
In addition, Baker has great familiarity with a broad range of foreign and domestic issues, and is well-known and respected abroad. Other politicians also consider him to be one of the leading members of the Republican Party.
Regan, by contrast, had joined the Reagan Administration after many years on Wall Street.
"You can hear a sigh of relief all over Washington," said Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.). "This may be the best news I've heard since 1987 began. This is an excellent choice."
"With Howard Baker in the White House, the President should have a greater opportunity to get back in charge," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). "It's a good beginning, but there's a long way to go."
Vice President George Bush said in Bedford, Mass.: "I think he'll do a wonderful job. . . . He will fulfill the President's program."
In a written statement, the President praised his new chief of staff, who served as Senate majority leader during the first four years of Reagan's presidency, as "a man of unquestioned integrity and ability."
"I am enormously pleased that he is willing to take on this responsibility and to help me organize the White House staff for an aggressive two years of work," Reagan said. "Howard and I have been friends for a number of years. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him."
In the statement, the President saluted Regan as "a friend and associate who has always put the nation's interest first." He said Regan "came to me many months ago to say he would like to return to private life in the near future.
After Tower Report
"However, after the revelations about Iran, he indicated he would like to stay and help me and the Administration through the investigations. Last week he indicated that with the release of the Tower Board report, he felt he would like to go through with his original plans to return to private life.
"I am therefore accepting with regret his resignation as chief of staff, effective today."
Elsewhere, sentiment toward the departing chief of staff was less favorable. A former White House official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said of the former chief of staff: "He kept the President sanitized. He kept dissenting voices from coming near him, playing to whatever he thought the President needed to hear."
The shift in the uppermost level of the White House staff brings to Reagan's side an entirely new lineup for his final 23 months in office.
Reagan--as did President Jimmy Carter before him--built his presidential campaign around the theme that it was time to bring to the White House a team of new faces who could successfully do battle with entrenched bureaucrats and special interests.
Old Washington Hands
Now his White House staff is led by old Washington hands. In addition to Baker, Reagan recently named as his national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci, a former career Foreign Service officer who served as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Carter, a Democrat.
Beyond those two appointments, other recent personnel shifts have given the President a new White House spokesman, chief domestic policy adviser, director of communications and assistant for political affairs and intergovernmental relations.