WASHINGTON -- William J. Bennett, the blunt-speaking drug czar who was a Democrat just four years ago, is the White House's choice to take over as head of the Republican National Committee, senior administration and party officials said yesterday.
Lee Atwater, being treated for an inoperable brain tumor, would be given the title of general chairman, they said.
President Bush is expected to announce the appointment when he returns from his weeklong trip to Europe and the Middle East, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.
The selection of Mr. Bennett, 47, comes when conservatives are angry with Mr. Bush for abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge. Some conservatives had promoted Mr. Bennett as a possible alternative candidate to Mr. Bush in 1992.
But this move, as a party official put it, keeps Mr. Bennett on board and placates conservatives.
Neither Mr. Bennett nor Mr. Atwater could be reached for comment.
Mr. Bennett, who is stepping down as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the end of this month, met last week with White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu to discuss the possibility of becoming the new RNC chairman. Sources said Mr. Bennett was receptive to the idea.
"It's pretty well decided," said a senior party official who participated in the negotiations.
The RNC is expected to ratify the arrangement at its annual winter meeting in January.
Mr. Atwater, 39, recently announced his intention to seek re-election to a two-year term as RNC chairman. But at the time, several committee members expressed concern that he would be physically able to be a full-time chairman during what some saw as a crucial period leading up to the 1992 presidential elections.
Several members suggested then that Mr. Atwater be given the title of general chairman and that someone else take over the committee's day-to-day operations.
Mr. Bennett will raise money, schedule campaign appearances and be the main party spokesman. Mr. Atwater will continue to be the chief strategist, complementing Bennett's lack of campaign experience. Mr. Bennett has never run for office, nor has he run a campaign.
Mr. Atwater, who calls Mr. Bennett a friend, was very much involved in choosing Mr. Bennett, a White House source said.
Mr. Bennett spent 20 months as the drug czar, a high-profile position that many said lacked authority. Although the position was created to coordinate the more than 30 federal agencies involved in fighting illegal drug use, Mr. Bennett used it primarily as a rhetorical platform.
Mr. Bennett also served 3 1/2 years as education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. He became a Republican in 1986 when he re-registered to vote in North Carolina.