WASHINGTON -- The main rap against President Bush's selection of his secretary of agriculture, Clayton Yeutter, as the next Republican national chairman seems to be that his background is in farm rather than political problems. But because the Republican National Committee has been pretty much a zoo in recent months, the appointment may be appropriate.
Ever since the GOP took a lukewarm bath in the November elections -- losing nine House seats, one in the Senate and a net of two governorships -- the party headquarters has been a
barnyard of braying indecision, spotlighted by the in-and-out strut of one of the party's cockiest roosters, former drug czar William Bennett. After having accepted the job, Bennett decided he couldn't afford the financial sacrifice and quit.
There then ensued an embarrassing semi-public search for a second choice that brought back memories of the Democrats' vice presidential selection fiasco of 1972. In that sorry episode, presidential nominee George McGovern, having dropped Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate, made offers to several Democrats before settling on Sargent Shriver. McGovern was hopelessly lost after that.
In this latest Republican version, the word went out that the White House wanted a "name" to demonstrate that the job was still desirable after Bennett's exit. But the names that surfaced seemed to suggest just the opposite. Some nuts-and-bolts technicians were mentioned, but the prospect of working for White House chief of staff John Sununu, the tough political czar of the administration since the illness of sidelined Lee Atwater, made the job less attractive to them.
As a member of the Cabinet, Yeutter qualifies as a name, albeit one you probably can't pronounce until you're told it rhymes with "lighter," which his detractors on the party's far right insist he is. Around the country, outside of farm circles and particularly among Republican politicians, the new chairman will have a lot of self-introducing to do.
Still, even some on the far right such as Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation call Yeutter "a safe choice" who will be fully capable of minding the RNC store as the anticipated Bush re-election bid of 1992 approaches under the direction of the White House, meaning Sununu. The fact is that the national committee seldom plays a truly significant role when the party occupies the White House and what is needed is a workhorse on party organization, which from all reports Yeutter apparently is, in spades.
There is some relief at the committee, in fact, that Bennett, who probably would have used the chairmanship largely as a platform for his outspoken views, is being replaced by a man who is said to excel in detail work and whose agenda does not go beyond helping his party and defending his president, with whom Yeutter has had a long and loyal political relationship.
A little-known fact about him is that he worked for Bush's first presidential bid in 1979-80 in his home state of Nebraska and raised money for him in the Midwest, to the consternation of Sen. Bob Dole, then also seeking the GOP nomination and hoping for Yeutter's support. When President Reagan sought to name Yeutter his first secretary of agriculture in 1981, Dole blocked the nomination, but Yeutter eventually became U.S. trade representative in the Reagan administration. He and Dole are said to get along well now.
Although Yeutter is no Bill Bennett in constant quest of an open microphone, Republicans who have dealt with him for a long time say he is an effective public speaker who, unlike Bennett, is unabrasive. This is a combination, these Republicans say, that will make him a comfortable match for Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown on the television talk-show circuit and an accommodating partner of Sununu's, if there can be any such thing.
James Lake, the former Reagan-Bush campaign press secretary who was Yeutter's deputy at Agriculture in the Reagan administration, calls his old boss "a healer of diverging opinions. He can win an argument without rubbing anyone's face in it; a fiscal conservative but not an ideologue. He wants things to work."
And, to those who suggest that Yeutter will be a mere mouthpiece for Sununu, Lake says: "He's no Charlie McCarthy." Much will depend, though, on how Sununu, the political Edgar Bergen at the White House, deals with him.