On the field of dreams, ideas, Magaziner is a big-play quarterback

May 03, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The guy in charge of overhauling the nation's health care system is such a junk-food fanatic that he packs half his suitcase with boxes of Mallomars when he travels overseas.

He is such an anti-athlete that, at a loss to prove physical vigor to qualify for a Rhodes scholarship, he thought about offering to arm wrestle the Rhodes committee.

And, as he worked day after marathon day on health care costs and coverage, as winter turned to spring, the guy with the rumpled suit and the laissez-faire hair languished with pneumonia and a residual cold-flu-cough malady that he couldn't seem to shake.

"I'm too afraid to see a doctor," he joked to an audience of business leaders.

But there are more salient ways in which Ira C. Magaziner, 45, is an unlikely chief lieutenant to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the administration's effort to repair the nation's $800 billion-a-year health care industry.

Mr. Magaziner, a long-time friend of President Clinton and the chief executive's senior policy adviser, is neither a health care expert nor an economist, but rather a 1960s liberal turned business consultant who has made millions toiling for corporate giants.

He had never held a government position , has had as many failures as successes in the public policy arena and has a history of proposing big, bold, revolutionary changes -- the kind Washington usually shuns. "Both Ira's best trait and his riskiest trait is that he never tries to work the ball down the field. He always tries to throw the bomb for a touchdown," says Mark Patinkin, a Providence, R.I., journalist who co-wrote a book on global economics with Mr. Magaziner in the late 1980s.

These days, Mr. Magaziner has one of the nation's most explosive issues tucked under his arm.

Though Mrs. Clinton heads the health care reform task force, Mr. Magaziner is its architect, putting together the complex proposal for universal health care that will be delivered to the president.

A champion of government aid to promising industries and the author of three books on economics, Mr. Magaziner is an intense policy enthusiast who thrives on reports, meetings and talk -- much like Bill Clinton, but with various eccentricities instead of the president's smoothness.

Mr. Magaziner is engrossed in the policy minutiae running through his mind, to the point that he once walked into a formal business meeting with no laces in his shoes, that he once narrowly escaped being struck by a car in Paris while crossing the street during a discussion of Europe's Airbus,former associates recall.

"He is one part absent-minded professor, another part single-minded intellect," says Joshua Posner, a long-time friend and former colleague.

Since their days at Oxford University in England, the Clinton-Magaziner relationship has been an intellectual one. Mr. Magaziner, one of the key authors of the Clinton campaign manifesto, "Putting People First," was one of the prime forces in shaping the president's economic outlook. Mr. Magaziner meets with the president in the West Wing of the White House nearly every day. Mr. Magaziner was the one who brought "managed competition" -- competition among health care networks for large pools of consumers, which is likely to be a cornerstone of a health care reform proposal -- to candidate Clinton's attention.

In imploring Mr. Clinton to make the difficult issue of health care a priority, Mr. Magaziner says, he told the candidate, "You're standing in quicksand, and your only way out is to run through a minefield. What do you want to do?"

The native New Yorker also has an easy, comfortable relationship with the first lady.

With its team of 500 government employees and academics, 30 working groups and rigorous work schedule, the health care task force is "vintage Magaziner," friends say.

It is a much-expanded version of a management technique Mr. Magaziner has used through the years as a consultant to governments overseas and companies including General Electric. He fashioned it at Brown University where, as a student leader in the late 1960s, he headed a student group that brought about a dramatically revamped curriculum after exhaustively studying the subject, producing a 425-page report and methodically selling the plan to the campus.

Many credit the "new curriculum," which largely eliminated grades and requirements and gave students more freedom in shaping their own course of study, with propelling Brown into the forefront of the nation's universities.

Today, Mr. Magaziner, who speaks to reporters at public events but declined to give an extended interview, is generally given high marks for his style, his mind and his dedication.

He is well-known for working 20-hour days and expecting much the same of those working with him.

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