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CLINTON'S GLOBE-TROTTER : Secretary of State Warren Christopher Knows the Power of Being an Insider With a Social Conscience. And He's Carrying it Into the Global Arena

February 21, 1993|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a national correspondent for The Times. His last article for this magazine was on California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

The man is nothing if not nice. He apologizes for not having found time for an interview during those hectic months in Little Rock when he was running the transition team. Nor could he fit one in during the pit stops at his downtown Los Angeles law office, where everybody in the world seemed to be dropping in to offer congratulations and a resume.

Now, with his wife, Marie, waiting down at the beach during a brief Hawaiian vacation before his confirmation as secretary of state, Warren Christopher is reluctantly returning a reporter's call.

"I don't know how good I am at being introspective," he says. He finds it "corny" to talk about the tough times growing up during the Depression in North Dakota, the root source of his consistent liberalism, and "immodest" to trace his rise to the top of corporate law and governmental power. But he would try.

A lifetime of reticence had suddenly failed him as a civic virtue: Critics were equating his reputation for behind-the-scenes efficiency with opportunism, and they attributed his history of sparse and always tempered public remarks to a lack of vision.

What kept coming up was the gray thing--Christopher was too careful, too much the diplomat, ever the corporate lawyer. A New York Times profile defined him as a man of the center bereft of passion. And the New Republic attacked him as a "sphinx," a man who represented competence without content. The joke in Washington is that he is Cyrus Vance without the charisma.

He does seem painfully shy. Long pauses in the phone conversation hang heavy whenever a personal question is asked, as if the line between Los Angeles and Kona had suddenly gone dead. Why does any of this matter, the silences seem to be asking.

Warren Christopher is not being rude. He never is. Just unfailingly discreet. Despite his frequent spells of high-profile public service during his 67 years, the media clips are surprisingly barren of telling anecdotes or insightful quotes. What you get is a bare-bones resume. Self-revelation is not Warren Christopher's game. "I'm shy," he says. "It's probably somewhat genetic. I'm Norwegian and Norwegians are quite reserved, generally speaking." His language, like everything else about him, is cautious.

Calm and ever self-effacing, he shunned the spotlight after his negotiations led to the release of American hostages from Iran in 1981, and he gave up writing a book on the hostage affair because "I don't like using the vertical pronoun."

Robert Pierpoint, the former CBS correspondent, recalls taking Christopher and his wife out to dinner at the Four Seasons in Washington the night after the hostages were released. As Christopher crossed the restaurant to leave, the normally blase Washingtonians burst into loud, sustained applause. Christopher was genuinely puzzled. Pierpoint, who has known Christopher for more than 30 years, insists that "he didn't have a clue as to why they were applauding. And I said, 'The fact is, you're a national hero for helping get the hostages freed,' and he was totally startled."

By contrast, says Pierpoint, who also knew Henry Kissinger quite well, "Kissinger cultivated the press and played games with those of us who covered him, and these are things Christopher would shy away from." More important, Pierpoint notes that "Henry has this concept of foreign policy in which you play Metternich or Cardinal Richelieu and you play one side off against the other. I think Christopher is much more interested in trying to smooth over differences between nations rather than exploit them."

One has the sense that for Christopher, an argument in any context would be wasteful. His wife says they have not had a fight in 35 years. Colleagues report that he is possessed of a startling equanimity. Donn Miller, a former law partner at O'Melveny & Myers who has played tennis with him almost every week for 32 years, insists that Christopher has never disputed a call or argued about anything, not even politics. This even though Miller is a Reagan Republican and Christopher a veteran of the Jimmy Carter Administration. "He may not be huggable, but he is always considerate and respectful. He is true to his values and he has a backbone of steel," says Miller.

Still, some questions persist about just what values drive this perfectly turned-out, poker-faced lawyer, who has been a confidant to liberal politicians and corporate CEOs. Because he has written little outside of legal briefs, his positions are most often imputed. He is, at the same time, the dovish negotiator of Carter's State Department; the conservative, wealthy managing partner of Los Angeles' most traditional law firm; an accommodating No. 2 who had reached his zenith as the top deputy in the Justice and State departments; the gutsy leader who guided a major investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department.

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