THAT good, he ought to be president

Sandy Grady

August 17, 1992|By Sandy Grady

TO GET a handle on the miracle George Bush desperately wants from his buddy Jim Baker, go to the sports machine.

Once there was a ball player so prodigiously gifted he not only won three World Series games as a pitcher, but later smacked 60 home runs -- all on a diet of beer, cigars, bimbos and hot `` dogs.

There's never been a multi-talented athlete to match George Herman Ruth.

That's the political equivalent of what Mr. Bush asks of Jim Baker: Be my Babe Ruth.

When the president whistled Mr. Baker in from his secretary of state bullpen, he was demanding Ruth-style heroics: Pitch, hit homers, save a sinking franchise.

All you have to do, Jim, is straighten out the White House chaos, troubleshoot foreign policy on the sly and above all save the Bush campaign from disaster.

If James A. Baker III can do all that in 85 days, you have to conclude the wrong guy is president.

Mr. Bush put a public-service spin on the Baker move: "This is a pivotal moment in America's journey." But everybody knows Jim Baker has been shifted for one reason: to rescue the president from political oblivion. And for Mr. Baker to run the Bush campaign from inside the White House will be to skate on thin ethical ice. It might even be criminal.

White House lawyer Boyden Gray's Nov. 27, 1991, memo warned the president's staff: "The simplest rule is common-sense instruction that anything campaign-related should not be done here." Gray noted, "Criminal statutes prohibit use of federal programs, property or employment for political purposes . . . Punishable by imprisonment or substantial fines."

OK, Mr. Baker won't go to the slammer for shading the ethical line. But there's something tawdry, verging on panic, about a secretary of state demoted from globe-jetting peacemaker to his boss' politico.

You sensed his split emotions in Mr. Baker's farewell at the State TC Department, where his blatant Republican pep talk was oddly out of place. At the end, as Mr. Baker said, "I salute you . . . , " his eyes welled.

Naturally, Republicans cheered like settlers surrounded by Indians who hear the U.S. calvary bugles. "Baker to the rescue," chortled HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. "Now we've got decisive leadership."

But tugging Mr. Baker away from the State Department and from such pressing stuff as the Yugoslav crisis, Somalian tragedy and Israeli-Arab peace talks shows not only deep anxiety about Mr. Bush's '92 campaign. It also demonstrates how thin the Bush/Reagan team has become in talent.

Over 12 years' attrition has wiped out the first team. Look at the departed: Cap Weinberger, George Shultz, Don Regan, John Sununu, Howard Baker, Ed Meese, Mike Deaver, Drew Lewis, David Stockman, Dick Thornburgh, Al Haig . . .

They get tired, or fired, or quit to make money. Now, in an administration low on electricity and ideas, Jim Baker is the last powerhouse.

While the rest of the Reagan/Bush gang faded, Mr. Baker survived with a reputation triple-coated in Teflon.

Did the S&L fiasco happen while he was Treasury secretary? The Willie Horton disgrace take place while he was '88 campaign manager? Saddam Hussein's invasion catch him by surprise at State? Mr. Baker, a marvel at press manipulation, never leaves fingerprints on a flop.

There's no doubt Mr. Baker gives Mr. Bush's limping '92 campaign two big assets. The president and his chaotic team will give Mr. Baker total control. "Jim can knock heads, tell George how to get down and dirty," said one insider. And Mr. Baker brings the aura of a winner.

Remember, though, when Mr. Baker took over Mr. Bush's campaign in late August 1988, Mr. Bush was already even with Mike Dukakis and surging.

This time Mr. Baker is bailing out the Titanic. Sure, Mr. Clinton's inflated lead -- 19 to 25 points, depending on the poll -- is perishable. But Mr. Baker's magic can't wipe out the economy, or the 80 percent of Americans who think the country's going wrong, or Dan Quayle's persona.

Even Babe Ruth came to that sad time when pitchers were too young and strong, and fast balls became a blur.

Maybe Jim Baker will find time is his enemy. Even legends strike out.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Dail News.

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