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Baker Breaks the Fever

by Ed Magnuson

March 15, 1987

Wear­ing a grin almost as wide as the Ten­nessee River, a relaxed Howard Baker sailed through his first full week as Pres­i­dent Reagan’s chief of staff, leav­ing warm feel­ings in his wake. “Are you hav­ing more fun than if you were run­ning for Pres­i­dent?” he was asked. “Anything’s more fun than run­ning for Pres­i­dent,” replied the man who passed up one more try at the top job to set­tle for what many con­sider the sec­ond most pow­er­ful post in Wash­ing­ton. The for­mer Sen­ate major­ity leader’s calm, quip-filled man­ner con­trasted sharply with that of Don Regan, his tightly wound, auto­cratic pre­de­ces­sor. Said Senior White House Aide Mitch Daniels: “Spring came early this year.”

Baker fol­lowed Regan’s prac­tice of start­ing each day with an 8 a.m. staff meet­ing. On Mon­day, while assur­ing Regan’s for­mer aides that there would be no whole­sale fir­ings, Baker announced that two of his long­time lieu­tenants, James Can­non and Tom Griscom, would play key roles. Baker selected A.B. Cul­va­house, his for­mer leg­isla­tive coun­sel, to replace Peter Wal­li­son as White House coun­sel. Baker swiftly dis­posed of one inher­ited per­son­nel prob­lem. He dis­missed John O. Koehler, who had replaced Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Pat Buchanan last month. Koehler’s mem­ber­ship in a Nazi youth orga­ni­za­tion at the age of ten had embar­rassed the Admin­is­tra­tion, but what sealed his fate was his arro­gance, illus­trated by a refusal to move out of Buchanan’s office to make way for Can­non. “He was not a team player,” said a Baker aide.

At the first meet­ing Baker invited James Miller, direc­tor of the Office of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, to explain next year’s bud­get “if you have the courage.” Miller found it, even quot­ing an abu­sive let­ter from a tax­payer about the Administration’s fail­ure to bal­ance the bud­get. “Did I sign that one, Jim?” asked Baker, draw­ing ner­vous laughter.

Baker walked into the press­room on Mon­day after­noon, announc­ing, “I intend to do this often.” That was wel­come news to reporters, who had found Regan reclu­sive dur­ing his final months. Baker deftly han­dled sticky ques­tions about remarks he made to a Miami Her­ald edi­tor on a Miami-to-Washington flight two weeks ago. Baker, whose com­ments were printed in last Sunday’s Her­ald, told the edi­tor that the President’s mem­ory had a short “half-life.” Explained Baker last week: “As major­ity leader, I found that the Pres­i­dent was as good as any­body in the give-and-take on com­plex issues, but that when you approached him about it two weeks or two months later, you found that the half-life of that mem­ory was short. But so is mine. And so is yours, I suspect.”

As to his state­ment that Nancy Rea­gan “can be a dragon” when “she gets her hack­les up,” Baker shrugged this off, say­ing, “She’s a great lady. And she obvi­ously is a lady of strong con­vic­tions.” He later explained his remarks to Nancy, head­ing off any poten­tial ten­sion. Mau­reen Rea­gan sent Baker a bou­quet of flow­ers with a card say­ing “Wel­come.” The flow­ers: yellow-green snapdragons.

On Wednes­day the three-term for­mer Sen­a­tor from Ten­nessee vis­ited Capi­tol Hill to “get my pass­port restamped,” as he put it, but actu­ally to dra­ma­tize the Administration’s desire to rebuild its rela­tions with Con­gress. Repub­li­can Leader Bob Dole wel­comed Baker to his office, which had been named “The Howard H. Baker Jr. Rooms” after he left the cham­ber in 1984. Dole had Baker’s por­trait placed where cam­eras could catch it and jok­ingly beamed a baby spot­light at it. He also offered Baker a key to his old office. No thanks, joked the new chief of staff, “I kept my key.”

After Baker paid his respects to the lead­ers of both par­ties in Con­gress, Con­gress­man Lynn Mar­tin, vice chair­man of the House Repub­li­can Con­fer­ence, declared, “The fever’s bro­ken.” Even con­ser­v­a­tive Con­gress­man Jack Kemp observed that Baker had “brought a sense of calm to this place.” Aware that right-wingers see him as a mod­er­ate too will­ing to com­pro­mise, Baker con­ceded that he expected “a lot” of pres­sure from them and added, “It’s impor­tant that I have an active out­reach to them.” When Idaho Sen­a­tor James McClure com­plained to Baker that the Sen­ate Steer­ing Com­mit­tee had not met with Rea­gan for months, the new chief of staff star­tled the con­ser­v­a­tive leg­is­la­tor by set­ting up a meet­ing with the Pres­i­dent for the next morning.

Baker also pleased his new col­leagues by arrang­ing a meet­ing between the Pres­i­dent and 60 senior mem­bers of the White House staff. Rea­gan intro­duced Baker, a tal­ented ama­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, with the quip, “He orig­i­nally applied for the job of White House pho­tog­ra­pher, but we turned him down.” Said Baker later: “These peo­ple deserve reas­sur­ance that they’re doing a good job, and now they’ve got it.”

The only soft spot in Baker’s first week was one that also plagued his aborted pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns: he ran con­tin­u­ously behind sched­ule. “My agenda is a sham­bles,” he con­ceded. “I spend most of my time pad­dling back and forth between this office and the Oval Office.” Baker was not com­plain­ing. “That’s the way it’s sup­posed to be,” he said. To help orga­nize his staff, Baker will bring for­mer Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Drew Lewis aboard for two months. Though it was obvi­ous that the one­time coun­try lawyer was off to a fast start in rebuild­ing a dam­aged pres­i­dency, Baker did have one regret: he sched­uled a hair­cut on Mon­day and never did get to the barber.


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