WASHINGTON — In saying yes to President Reagan, former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. demonstrated Friday why he is known as the quintessential nice guy and loyal Republican.
Surrounded by a throng of reporters at the law firm he is leaving, Baker explained that, while in the Senate, he had made "a conscious decision . . . that I would be Ronald Reagan's spear carrier." Now, as the President's chief of staff, "I will try to go forward with his programs as best I know how," he said.
In so doing, he will be giving up a reported $800,000 salary as a senior partner in his firm for the $90,000 the chief of staff earns, and saying goodby to his long-held presidential ambitions.
Baker, a 61-year-old native of Huntsville, Tenn., is taking a job at a White House that is at once chaotic and dispirited, venturing where other Republicans dared not go.
Back in Public Eye
However, while embracing what appears to be a thankless task, Baker also ensures that he will be back in the public eye again. And, with so much reorganizing and soothing of bruised feelings needing to be done, he likely will have a relatively free hand in staff and policy changes, fearing little internal criticism in the final two years of Reagan's presidency.
Baker, who competed with Reagan for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, said Friday that he "had pretty well made a decision to run" prior to accepting Reagan's offer. A friend said: "He'd been chomping at the bit real hard the last three weeks."
Baker said that he flew back to Washington Friday from Florida, where he had summoned his family to talk about his candidacy.
His chief concern had been the health of his wife, Joy, a recovered alcoholic who had suffered a number of physical problems in recent years.
Cites Problem of Time
Recently, Baker said his wife was doing well, but he faced another problem: time. In the marathon presidential sweepstakes, he was fast approaching a point when sources of funds would be committed to other possible candidates, including Vice President George Bush.
Moreover, Baker has indicated an aversion to stumping for money. At a breakfast session at The Times' Washington bureau last month, he said: "Raising money is a political abomination. It takes a whole year--1987 would be essentially fund raising."
His appointment to chief of staff means that he does not have to worry about any of that.
Unable to refuse the "most sensitive position" in the President's Administration, Baker said he did so "with the full knowledge that it will eliminate me as a contender for President."
By all accounts, Baker is well-suited to the job of reconciling contentious factions. A senator for 18 years and majority leader for the first four years of Reagan's presidency, he has learned a lot about bringing people together.
"Getting Lowell Weicker and Jesse Helms to agree on anything seems like an impossible task, but he did it," said a 20-year friend and former aide, speaking of the liberal Republican senator from Connecticut and his strongly conservative Republican colleague from North Carolina.
At the Republican National Committee, Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said Baker's service to the nation had "earned him the respect of everyone: the people, Congress and all of America."
It is difficult to find someone who says a bad word about Howard Baker. But, ironically, that is the point that several people made when considering possible weaknesses that could hamper his effectiveness in his new job.
"He was always known as a guy who didn't have enemies," one former colleague said. "He always wanted to say 'yes' to people. You know, people say you are known by your enemies. You wonder about a guy who has no enemies."
Such views call into question Baker's "toughness" and whether he has "a fire in his belly," another man who knows him said.
But a longtime friend said: "He's not tough in terms of swaggering, but he'll lock two people in a room and keep them there until" he convinces them that his point of view is right. "In his quiet way, he's made of steel."
Baker first swept into the national consciousness during the televised Senate hearings on Watergate in 1973--the scandal that drove President Richard M. Nixon from office--when he asked the famous question: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?"
And he has not always been completely deferential to the current President either. As majority leader in the first Republican-controlled Senate in a quarter-century, Baker tweaked Reagan on his economic policy, calling it a "riverboat gamble."
Nevertheless, he put his reservations aside and steered the President's historic military buildup and tax and spending cuts to passage in 1981, assuring approval for much of the Reagan agenda in the early years of the Administration.
As minority leader before that, he helped ensure passage of the controversial Panama Canal treaties negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
Baker did not hesitate to nudge Reagan when he believed it necessary, joining former Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts to enact a gasoline tax increase in 1982. The money went to a public works program, which pleased members of Congress from both parties who were demanding increased spending programs to reduce soaring unemployment rates.
On Friday, Baker said: "You may be assured . . . that I will give the President advice as best as I can contrive it. But I do not anticipate a conflict either with the President or any wing or group of Republicans." He said he wanted to "see that he looks good after eight years."
After declining to run for reelection in 1984, Baker went to work for the prestigious law firm of Vinson & Elkins, where he acted chiefly as a "rainmaker," or draw, for clients.