A battered president puts his fate in friend's hands BUSH CALLS IN BAKER

August 14, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Karen Hosler, staff writerWashington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- James A. Baker III's return to the White House is as close to a bloodless coup as American democracy is likely to see.

His takeover of the Bush administration unfolded live on national television yesterday morning, dramatizing just how bad things have gotten for the president these days.

First came President Bush's brief appearance before the cameras, where the battered incumbent dutifully announced yet another shake-up in his government. The statement he read all but credited Mr. Baker with engineering every one of the administration's major successes over the past 3 1/2 years.

In essence, Mr. Bush was announcing that he had surrendered his fate to a close friend of 35 years whose own ambitions have given their relationship an edge of personal rivalry at times. The move was reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan's decision to delegate the running of his first term to Mr. Baker, granting him the power to serve, in effect, as the unelected deputy president.

The flat, tired tone in Mr. Bush's voice and his refusal to face questions afterward were signs of how painful this surrender had to be.

His presidency hanging by a thread, he had been forced again to acknowledge failure, junking most of his senior staff less than three months before the election.

When the cameras cut cross-town to the State Department auditorium minutes later, the contrast could not have been more stark.

Mr. Baker's farewell address to his employees sounded more like an acceptance speech, if not the kickoff of some future presidential campaign. (He kept referring to the 21st century and the year 2000, four years beyond the end of a second Bush term.)

His remarks were filled with the sort of sweeping rhetoric that Mr. Bush has rarely been able to summon. Mr. Baker spoke of the crisis of confidence in the United States (which many critics have attributed to Mr. Bush's failed leadership) and of the need to "transform anxiety and even anger into regeneration," of making America an "export superpower" as well as a military one.

As uplifting as Mr. Bush was downbeat, Mr. Baker seemed glad to give himself credit, too, for the successes of the Bush years. Only at the very close of his remarks did he mention Mr. Bush by name.

There was even a bit of stagecraft -- something foreign to Mr. Bush -- as the secretary of state appeared to choke on his final words before hurrying into the wings. Applause showered down from State Department staffers who seemed to have forgotten that they have spent the past three years complaining that Mr. Baker relied too much on the advice of his close circle of personal aides and too little on their professional guidance.

Now those same Baker aides have been grafted onto the White House staff, assuming responsibility for politics, communications and policy development, the very guts of the modern presidency, where the Bush staff had been notoriously weak.

Mr. Baker's second coming to the White House couldn't be more different from his first tour of duty, almost 12 years ago. Then, he was stage-managing a freshly elected president, one who had ridden into office on a clear set of ideas and an electoral landslide. Now, he must try to rescue an unpopular incumbent who has seemed incapable of figuring out where he wants the country to go.

Under Mr. Baker, the White House staff is likely to be more disciplined and far more politically alert. The staff can be expected to bring a sharper focus to Mr. Bush's efforts to get his message across -- once Mr. Baker helps Mr. Bush determine what that message will be.

As much as anything, the Baker move will bring a psychological lift to a White House and a re-election campaign that is increasingly dispirited and lacking in coordination. It is often said that perception is reality in politics, and if there is anyone who can save George Bush, many Republicans believe that man is Jim Baker.

Certainly, no one has dazzled official Washington as he has for more than a decade. Moving from one top job to the next, he has managed to gain credit for what went right while avoiding blame for failures on his watch. In his remarks yesterday, for example, he skirted the fact that he was leaving his diplomatic post at a time of escalating tensions around the globe, acknowledging "some regrets" and making passing reference to Bosnia.

In addition to a relentless work schedule, a keen strategic mind and a personal style as smooth as well-aged bourbon, Mr. Baker has built his success on assiduous stroking of those who create and destroy reputations in Washington.

Widely considered to have presidential ambitions of his own, Mr. Baker has worked hard to satisfy the national news media -- largely by making himself available to key reporters and by feeding them information to be used without attributing it publicly to Mr. Baker. He has been known to put the works of Washington pundits on his office bookshelf, where they were sure to be seen by the authors.

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