Man with 'a presence' rushes to rescue . . . again ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- When President Bush dropped the other shoe on the long-awaited kidnapping of his old friend James Baker from the State Department back to the job of White House chief of staff he held under Ronald Reagan, he tried to make it sound that Baker was returning for more lofty purposes than saving his troubled re-election bid.

Baker, the president intoned, "will help me build on what we've started by developing an integrated second-term program of domestic, economic and foreign policies" because "in the world of today, these three topics have become one issue." Then he added: "And I also want his counsel and assistance as I seek a mandate from the American people to put this program into action."

The high-blown rhetoric doesn't fool anybody. Baker, with his own team from State, is coming back as the party's best, most experienced political fireman to pour water on a feud between the old White House staff under departing Sam Skinner and the Bush-Quayle re-election committee. And while he is hosing that down, he will be lighting a fire under his old buddy in the Oval Office, whose foot-dragging on getting into what he calls "a campaign mode" has frustrated and discouraged many of his re-election troops and much of the Republican Party.

If Bush is to be taken at his word, he is promising to make Baker every bit as much an assistant president as he actually was under the detail-aloof Reagan in Reagan's first term. Bush probably had to do so to get Baker to swallow the pill.

For Baker, this marks the second time he has been drafted from a prestigious Cabinet post (Treasury first, then State) to crawl back into the political trenches to save Bush's hide. When that first happened in 1988, as the Bush campaign similarly was in internal disorder and trailing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, Baker openly worried what this descent into grubby politics would do to his aspirations for achievement in cleaner-fingernails work, such as secretary of state.

When Bush won, Baker was rewarded with that job and from all accounts he has thrived in the globe-trotting demands of the striped-pants set. If Bush wins again, Baker will probably go right back to State, where good soldier Larry Eagleburger will keep his seat warm as acting secretary. If Bush loses, though, Baker's reputation as a political miracle man will be tarnished, along with whatever ambitions he has to be president himself down the road.

There is no question now, however, why Bush and the whole Republican Party are looking to Jim Baker to turn political water into wine. He alone, as one ranking member of the re-election team puts it, can deal up with the president and down with the staff, and make it stick in both directions. That is, he can discuss Bush's own shortcomings with bark off and get him to shape up, and at the same time he can knock heads at the White House and in the re-election campaign.

Baker is known for his ability and willingness to make decisions quickly and irreversibly and to see that they are carried out. "He's got a presence," says one longtime political associate, which well sums up his calm but commanding manner under pressure. Although Bush spoke of Baker's needed hand in "developing an integrated second-term program" to run on, others in the campaign say the message has not been the problem as much as the lack of implementation of tactical and strategic political decisions crisply made, which Baker will supply.

The Democrats, not surprisingly, are charging that American foreign policy is being shortchanged at a critical time, with Baker's work toward a Middle East peace treaty cut short to save the political future of the president. But Baker from the White House will be able to keep his hand in through Eagleburger, and even if that peace effort fails, it will be hard to blame the failure on Baker's job switch.

The recall of Baker to the political wars also is an embarrassing admission that the Bush re-election effort is in deep trouble, but that is no surprise either to anybody who can read the polls and see the thrashing about by Bush-Quayle operatives. When you're seriously ill, you send for the doctor. And when the patient is George Bush, Jim Baker makes house calls.

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