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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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