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Baker, the President's Inside Man

August 16, 1987|Patrick Thomas | Patrick Thomas is a Washington political writer

WASHINGTON — At the White House last Wednesday, Howard H. Baker Jr. was pausing to reflect on his accomplishments as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff for nearly half a year. The West Wing staff was working on final preparations for the President's long-awaited speech on the Iran- contra hearings that night while some staffers were loading files into aluminum boxes to take to California the next day, when Reagan would begin his month-long Santa Barbara vacation.

Baker, the former Senate Majority Leader, seemed to consider this the end of the first phase or quarter of his stewardship at the White House and he was generally pleased.

"I'm in a different incarnation," he said, using that word more than once to explain his transformation. "Here . . . I have one constituent, that is, the President. While I was a consensus builder in the Congress, and that was called for in that incarnation, that does not necessarily mean I will be a consensus builder down here."

When he was named to the post, there were both hopes and fears that Baker would become virtually prime minister--or even regent--and moderate the Reagan agenda. To the contrary, by his own account, he has become something of a White House company man.

Everybody asks him about the new job. Last month, at his rural Tennessee home, he and his wife, Joy, were entertaining many of their original supporters with a barbecue; a guest came up to Baker and said, "You seem to be happy in your new role, Senator."

"Some days," he replied, flashing his trademark grin. "Some days."

Sniping at the courtly Tennessean, usually from the right wing of his own party, has become such a popular Washington pastime that on the previous Saturday, the Washington Post published a letter from Office of Management and Budget Director James C. Miller III under the heading "Hey, Everybody, Get Off Howard Baker's Back."

Asked about the Beltway perception that he doesn't have a handle on his job, he replied, "I am entirely happy with my staff, which is the President's staff, with the organization, with the allocation of work--and I think it's working smoothly--and I have no complaint, nor does the President have any complaint that I am aware of."

He then talked about expectations: "Some of my friends, and my former colleagues--some have even suggested former friends, although I stoutly deny that--say, 'Well, Howard was a great compromiser in Congress, and we expected him to compromise . . . when he went to the White House.' But that's not my role. My role is to try to pass the President's programs and try to carry out the President's wishes, and I think that has disappointed a number of people."

Disappointed and surprised a number of people. No one predicted a reincarnation of Howard Baker as a virtual appendage of Ronald Reagan.

Baker began his political life as the quintessential Washington insider--the son of Rep. Howard H. Baker Sr. and later the son-in-law of Republican Senate Leader Everett M. Dirksen. But Baker's appeal to Tennesseans, who sent him three times to the Senate, was the force of his own personality. In Tennessee, the majority of courthouses and the Legislature have always been controlled by Democrats, but Baker was always able to get a comfortable crossover vote.

In the mid-1960s, many Southern Democratic leaders were reactionaries and sometimes outright racists. Baker was neither and in the White House he still talks about his late father-in-law: "I think Everett Dirksen, who was a great orator and a public figure for whom the country had great respect and affection, was also one of the principle pillars of the modern civil rights movement, and I count that one of his great accomplishments."

Now Baker must help the President toward great accomplishments during the last 17 months of the Administration. Last week's White House speech was designed to ring down the curtain on the Iran- contra hearings. Before Reagan spoke, the chief of staff appeared to be in an unusually feisty mood, a spirit reflected later that day in the President's own address.

Baker described a four-part agenda set by the President before the chief of staff arrived in February. The first two points had to do with the Iran- contra scandal. First, Baker, who came to national prominence as co-chairman of the Watergate hearings, described a sort of glasnost campaign throughout this year's investigations: "We carried out the President's instruction that he would not claim executive privilege, which is virtually unprecedented."

He continued, "I think we've performed on that first thing I wanted to do for the President, that is, to see that he gets through these hearings in good shape."

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