'We lost. The air is out of the balloon' THE POLITICAL SCENE


January 02, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After weeks in the shadows of defeat, James A. Baker III emerges briefly today to share the limelight with Presidents Bush and Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow for the signing of the historic START II treaty.

Mr. Baker has a valid claim to share the credit for the once-unthinkable cuts in both countries' long-range nuclear arsenals. From early in his tenure as secretary of state, he devoted much of his energy and negotiating skill to locking in the end of the Cold War with verifiable arms cuts that would prevent its revival.

But it was others who finally nailed down the historic treaty, including Mr. Baker's successor as secretary, Lawrence S. Eagleburger.

That it was he, and not Mr. Baker, who announced the final result Tuesday fits the downbeat ending of a Washington success story. After 12 years of back-to-back achievements, Mr. Baker leaves office in three weeks with his last effort a failure and his White House team embroiled in the Clinton passport scandal.

While the START agreement was still unfinished in late summer, he was back at the White House trying to reorganize and redirect a re-election campaign headed off the rails.

Foreign policy initiatives were mostly put on hold as he shifted the focus of his well-known talents: careful organization, methodical planning, control of the public message, an instinct for his opponent's weaknesses and the stomach for a bruising fight.

The ensuing defeat should not have been a crushing blow for someone with as many years in the rough and tumble of politics as Mr. Baker. He knew going in, with the economy faltering, that it was an uphill battle.

Mr. Baker himself, among the most private and self-controlled of public men, has kept his reaction hidden.

But the loss was particularly damaging, if not to Mr. Baker personally, then to his reputation for invincibility.

At the time, he had held more power, for longer, than any other Republican in Washington. As White House chief of staff and Ronald Reagan's re-election manager he had overshadowed even his longtime friend, then-Vice President George Bush.

He was first among equals in the Bush Cabinet, having run the president's election campaign and added luster to the presidency with a string of diplomatic successes.

With his growing power had come an aura that he burnished with careful attention to his public appearances and statements, and also widespread fear. Rarely did criticism of Mr. Baker appear with a name attached. And he was such a longtime bureaucratic survivor that few moved against him.

At the Bush campaign, and throughout Washington, he was hailed as a potential savior. And he had brought with him a staff known for workaholic hours, brains and political savvy -- chief among them Margaret Tutwiler, an unfailingly gracious but hardnosed manager, and tactician Janet Mullins.

Such was his reputation that it was employed as a campaign tactic, with Mr. Bush announcing during a debate that, once re-elected, he would set Mr. Baker to work on the economy.

The president's resounding defeat has brought Baker critics out of the woodwork with a vengeance to attack him for being late to sign on to the campaign and not having a strategy once he got there.

Compounding the loss is the whiff of scandal. This was doubly shocking for the Baker team, who had not only been untarnished but were known for avoiding the kind of stupid mistakes that can doom Washington operatives.

An 11th-hour pre-election search for incriminating information in Bill Clinton's passport file has resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe whether Ms. Mullins lied afterward to State Department investigators.

Mr. Baker, who told investigators he knew of the search the night it occurred or the next day, has himself retained a lawyer.

As the probe reached into the White House, Mr. Baker all but disappeared from public view, even as Mr. Bush rebounded to lead a final international coalition to end the horrors in Somalia.

Mr. Baker has been involved in major presidential decisions, such as the final deliberations on the START treaty and the pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, but has largely left day-to-day management of the government to deputy White House chief of Staff Robert Zoellick.

There is a poignant note to Mr. Baker's final weeks: the disappointment of watching the Middle East peace process, the result of his most relentless efforts as secretary, languish in apparent stalemate.

Moving out of the spotlight, Mr. Baker will doubtless achieve a different sort of success. He has been talking to law firms and will probably head the ranks of Washington "rainmakers," those whose quiet advice commands huge fees.

He is still mentioned as a 1996 presidential possibility, although his stiff public manner hardly fits the style of modern campaigns. Even his experience of recent weeks may not be enough to convince him of the value of his grandfather's advice: Stay out of politics.

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