Baker to the rescue but no one counted on a hurricane

CRISIS WITHIN A CRISIS

September 02, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As if rescuing President Bush's struggling re-election bid weren't enough of a challenge, James A. Baker III is coping during his first 10 days on duty at the White House with the worst natural disaster in America's history.

That's meant more than a week of lost campaign opportunities and what one aide called a "hurricane within a hurricane" as the new Baker team tried to manage a major crisis before it had gotten the administration's house in order.

Worse was the potential for another black mark against Mr. Bush. Despite a massive public relations effort, including a televised address to the nation last night, the president can probably hope only to emerge from the ruins of Hurricane Andrew with his political standing no lower than it was before the storm started.

Even for Mr. Baker, the purported miracle man of Republican politics, it's been a rough start.

"We sit in meetings all day just trying to get our arms around everything we have to do," said one of the four top aides Mr. Baker brought with him from the State Department when he took over Aug. 23 as Mr. Bush's third White House chief of staff. But in the midst of the chaos, the president's political message has been tightened, his White House and campaign staffs have been streamlined to a pyramid, with Mr. Baker on top, and the mood is more hopeful in the face of a continuing stream of poll numbers that show Mr. Bush trailing well behind Democratic contender Bill Clinton.

Even senior officials who have been effectively demoted by Mr. Baker said the new regime was preferable to what one called the "anarchy" it replaced.

"It's wonderful, awesome, fabulous just to have somebody making decisions," said another official. As often happens with Mr. Baker, the smooth-talking Texas lawyer was able to turn some of the bad luck to his advantage.

Orchestrating the hurricane aftermath gave Mr. Baker an immediate chance to demonstrate his unquestioned authority, decisiveness and political sensitivity to the emotional forces at play.

On Aug. 24, the day the storm hit, the president's campaign plane was rerouted from Connecticut to Florida so Mr. Bush could personally show his concern for the suffering of voters in a large state considered crucial to his re-election. Two days later, Mr. Bush inspected the subsequent damage in Louisiana.

Mr. Baker appeared to have stumbled, though, by last Thursday when Mr. Bush deployed military troops to provide aid to the hurricane victims only after local officials complained on television that help wasn't coming fast enough.

The administration argues it acted as soon as it got a formal request from Florida Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., and insists officials at all levels significantly underestimated how much federal help would be needed.

The president has spent the last few days furiously trying to defend himself on this point and demonstrating that he is genuinely concerned about the storm victims.

As part of that effort, Mr. Baker convinced Mr. Bush to cancel his plans for one last summer weekend at his beloved Kennebunkport, Maine, retreat so he could be photographed in Washington monitoring relief efforts instead of in his speedboat or golf cart.

A planned West Coast campaign swing Monday and yesterday were also scrapped for another round of much photographed meetings with public and private officials involved in the relief efforts and a second presidential inspection tour of the devastated areas.

The tightening of the political message, begun with Mr. Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, hit full stride Thursday when the president gave three speeches on a campaign swing through Ohio and Missouri that were crafted under the direction of Robert Zoellick, Mr. Baker's top deputy. Their theme was investment and trade, and the language borrowed heavily from Mr. Baker's departure address to the State Department staff in which he spoke of the need for the United States to become an economic and export superpower as well as a military superpower. The purpose was to "toughen" the speeches up and "be more concise on the differences" between the two candidates, said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. But at the same time, Mr. Baker has toned down the harsh, right- wing, "family values" rhetoric that was the dominant theme of the Republican National Convention.

"He's not saying give up the issue, just be careful how you phrase things," a Baker aide explained. Mr. Baker is particularly opposed to attacks on Hillary Clinton, the wife of the Democratic nominee, who was also a favorite target at the GOP convention in a strategy he fears may have backfired.

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