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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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