WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago, when William M. Daley paid his first visit to the White House with his father, Chicago's legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, he and his brother Rich -- now the current Chicago mayor -- were invited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to swim in the White House pool. As the two older men lunched, the Daley brothers took a memorable dip.
The pool later was boarded over by President Richard M. Nixon, but Bill Daley is back and has taken a plunge of another sort at the request of another president. At Bill Clinton's urging, the Chicago lawyer and political strategist has dived into the unenviable task of selling the North American Free Trade Agreement at a time when many are convinced that NAFTA is sinking.
Mr. Daley, 45, acknowledges that it will be a challenge to win congressional approval of NAFTA against opposition that includes organized labor, former presidential candidates Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, and probably a majority of Democrats in Congress. Those foes have been successful in a sales job of their own: that NAFTA will cost American jobs, in what Mr. Perot likes to describe as "the giant sucking sound" of those jobs going south to Mexico.
As head of the NAFTA task force, Mr. Daley says his priority is "to neutralize that argument" in the minds of voters and of the House and Senate members sharply attuned to the attitudes of their constituents back home.
To that end, an array of administration surrogate speakers, including such outsiders as Lee A. Iacocca, the former Chrysler Corp. chairman, and possibly former President Ronald Reagan, will be on the stump or in television commercials in coming weeks.
Mr. Daley calculates that there are more than 100 Democratic House members still on the fence on NAFTA. He hopes to corral 30 to 50 of them, along with a substantial Republican House vote, to win the agreement's approval.
The administration is well behind, he says, "but we'll be in the hunt" by the time the votes are counted before the Jan. 1 deadline. Mr. Clinton has told the House and Senate leadership, Mr. Daley says, that he definitely wants an up or down vote on it by year's end, or much sooner.
Because organized labor is so vehemently against NAFTA and because Mr. Daley has strong political ties to labor, the assumption has been that Mr. Clinton tapped his Illinois campaign manager to help turn the labor leaders around.
There is virtually no chance of that happening, Mr. Daley concedes. Rather, his assignment is to rally public support that can move fence-straddling legislators, and to help them in other ways.
Mr. Daley says many Democrats in the House are not particularly opposed to NAFTA, but they need the campaign contributions they get from labor -- money that assuredly will be denied them if they vote for it. So one way to court them is to give them a hand in fund raising, providing crowd-drawing speakers.
Mr. Daley says he has taken the job because of Mr. Clinton's commitment to NAFTA and because he will have to give only four months to it -- minus time back in Chicago this month to see the White Sox play in the American League Championship Series.
He acknowledges having come down with a mild case of Potomac Fever after a post in the Clinton Cabinet -- secretary of transportation -- was waved under his nose and then given to Federico F. Pena, the former mayor of Denver. This stint as the NAFTA field general, he says, may "get it out of my system."
The public limelight up to now has never been Bill Daley's choice. Although he often is referred to in Chicago political circles as "the smart brother," he has willingly played a behind-the-scenes role in his eldest brother's successful climb to the mayoralty.
The youngest of four boys and two girls, he is a member of the prestigious law firm of Mayer, Brown and Platt, to which he returned after a short stint as a Chicago bank president and to which, presumably, he will return after the NAFTA vote.
Mr. Daley's acceptance of the temporary task may be smarter than it looks, one longtime Chicago political observer suggests. "After rubbing shoulders with the president of the United States and all those senators, he will come back with enhanced status )) that I imagine will be a real asset to the law firm," this observer says.
Beyond that, win or lose, Mr. Daley puts Mr. Clinton in his debt by taking on such a thankless task, especially after being turned down for the Cabinet position. If he wins he will be a hero in the White House. If he loses, it will be hard to fault him, considering the heavy opposition to the agreement even before he took the job.
Many Chicagoans impressed with his political skills a few years back were expressing the view that "the wrong Daley" was running for mayor. That attitude demeaned his brother, a longtime state senator and later state's attorney, as bland, uncharismatic and no Albert Einstein -- a man who had flunked the bar examination twice before passing.
David Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant who has worked closely with Bill Daley, says those skills include an easy sense of humor. He recalls the time when Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote that "the Daley boys" were so dumb they couldn't tie their own shoes. Bill Daley phoned Mr. Royko and told him: "Mike, don't worry. We're all wearing loafers now."
Rich Daley -- his brother calls him that rather than the somewhat condescending "Richie" that others use -- lost one bid for mayor in 1983 to Harold S. Washington, the first black to occupy the top City Hall job. When Mr. Washington died expectedly in late 1987, a split developed within the black community and gave Rich Daley another chance.
He won handily in 1989 and soon emerged as a quietly effective mayor, to the surprise of nearly everyone except his brother, who had steadfastly defended his abilities.
With Bill Daley always at his side behind the scenes, the second Mayor Daley largely eschewed his father's old machine politics and tactics, bringing many black Chicagoans into his government and effectively blunting the black political force that had brought Mr. Washington to power. Richie Daley was easily re-elected in 1991, with his brother managing his campaign as a supporting player in elective politics.
Bill Daley's interest in a Cabinet post, once he was mentioned prominently for it, surprised many friends, since he has always been so much a Chicago creature. Unlike many who come to Washington, get a taste of it and never leave, there is reason to believe him when he says he just wants to go back home after his NAFTA tour -- especially with his brother comfortably ensconced in the mayor's office once occupied so imperially by their father.
The old man often counseled his boys, he recalls, that it was better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. Bill Daley seems well-satisfied with that philosophy, while having a good time right now swimming around in one of the biggest ponds in politics.