WASHINGTON — Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate Republican leader who became President Reagan's chief of staff during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, resigned his White House post Tuesday, citing his wife's poor health.
He will be replaced by Kenneth M. Duberstein, his chief deputy, who formerly served as Reagan's liaison officer with Congress.
Baker, 62, said that his plans to leave, which he first raised with Reagan several months ago, were prompted primarily by his desire to spend more time with his wife in Tennessee and reflected no disagreement with the President.
But seven months before the end of the President's second and final term, Baker's departure appears to mark the inexorable transition of the Reagan White House to a caretaker capacity as national attention is increasingly focused on the campaign to choose the next President.
Duberstein, 44, is an energetic New Yorker who helped push some of Reagan's key legislative programs through Congress during the President's first term. He returned to the White House after 3 1/2 years as a lobbyist to become Baker's deputy after the former Tennessee senator was hired on Feb. 27, 1987.
Duberstein was described by one Baker associate as someone who "can juggle 10 balls at once and catch them all before they come down."
Notwithstanding his organizational talents, his chief job is "basically caretaker," said one former top White House official. The task in Reagan's final months in office is to avoid errors and "take him out with a little style," the former aide said.
Baker's resignation, and Duberstein's elevation as Reagan's fourth chief of staff, takes effect July 1. However, Baker said he will not accompany Reagan to Toronto on Sunday for the annual economic summit conference of the major industrial democracies.
"Sen. Baker has been a close friend and adviser who has guided my staff deftly and effectively for the last 16 months," Reagan said in a written statement. "He held a steady hand in the operation of the White House while the Iran-Contra investigations were being conducted and his wise counsel fostered the spirit of cooperation in which those issues were presented to the American people."
'Steady Force for Peace'
The President also praised Baker for his work at Reagan's summit conferences with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Washington last December and in Moscow earlier this month. The chief of staff was "a steady force for peace in helping to move our negotiators toward" the U.S.-Soviet agreement eliminating the superpowers' arsenals of land-based medium-range nuclear weapons, the statement said.
Reagan described Duberstein as "an outstanding manager and skilled strategist (who) has given me firm and effective counsel." He said his new chief of staff--a position that does not require Senate confirmation--"will lead the White House staff as we head into the home stretch."
That was a job Baker originally had declared he would fulfill, having once told reporters that he would be around "to lock the door and turn out the lights" when Reagan left office.
"For personal reasons he has asked that he be excused from that commitment," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
During a photo session at an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita, Reagan was asked if Baker's departure signals that the lights indeed are being extinguished on his Administration. "No," he said, "that means, I think, a little change has occurred."
Baker's wife, Joy, 59, has been under medical care frequently throughout his White House tenure and was hospitalized recently in Tennessee. Baker said in an interview that she is being treated for "severe and chronic" back pain caused by "a nerve problem" and must undergo daily physical therapy. She also has been treated for emphysema. In addition, he said that his 86-year-old stepmother, Irene Baker, has been hospitalized since Sunday because of abdominal pains.
Fewer Reasons to Stay
With the completion of the summits, there were fewer compelling reasons for him to stay on the job and away from home, Baker said.
"I'm leaving because it's a good time to leave," he said. "I may just take it easy for a while."
His resignation is the second by a top White House official recently, following that of Communications Director Thomas C. Griscom.
In the interview, Baker said that, while he would accept the Republican vice presidential nomination if it were offered by George Bush: "I do not want that to happen; I do not expect that to happen, and I'm doing nothing to try to produce that."
Seated in his corner office just a few paces from the Oval Office, he said: "Glory and power is a marvelous thing in moderation, and I've had all the glory and power I can handle for the moment."
Flood of Praise