Washington — Jim Baker now is being called the Republicans' Bob Strauss. No higher compliment could be paid to a politician. The political world seems to be one in which wheeling and dealing, blowing with the wind, expressing half truths, and "playing the game" are almost de rigueur.
Yet straight-shooting Strauss, with a quip and sometimes a jab, was able to make politics look like a respectable profession. And Baker, a whisperer compared to Strauss, is proving himself, as he sits at the President's right hand, to be a remarkably able political adviser and manueverer while at the same time keeping his credibility.
How did Baker, George Bush's campaign manager, arrive at the President's side , along with long-time Reagan associates Ed Meese and Mike Deaver?
The wisdom heard in Washington is that, while serving as a senior adviser to Reagan during the campaign, the relatively young Baker wond the admiration and respect of both Reagan and Reagan's closest associates. That's true, of course. It was Baker who at times all by himself insisted that Reagan should debate Carter, even in those late stages of the campaign when Reagan was forging ahead in the polls and when it could be argued that Carter might be able to use the TV confrontation to stem the Reagan momentum.
But Baker, who was the chief Reagan representative in the pre-debate negotiations with Carter aides, insisted that Reagan should still debate. He argued along this line with Mr. Reagan:
Some big national or global event is going to occur just a few days before the election, perhaps a new presidential initiative on the hostages. Such an event will probably give the President a lift at election time. Thus, Reagan should debate Carter right before the election, using this as an opportunity to offset any last-minute advantage to Carter.
Mr. Reagan listened to Baker's counsel. Polls after the debate showed that the challenger's poise and good humor gave him the definite edge over a too-sober, almost-grim President.
It turned out that the big event -- the last-minute, pre-election effort to free the hostages -- did not help the President. Instead, polls later showed, Mr. Carter's inability once again to bring that tragic episode to a conclusion only intensified the voters' perception of a President who was less of a leader than he should be.
Those close to Reagan say that the President sees the debate with Carter as the turning point in his election effort -- the move that pulled him out in front. And the President, grateful for Baker's advice, has respondend by making him a chief aide.
However, it took more than such valuable advice to more Baker to today's lofty spot. What has not been written is that the man even more responsible for that development than Vice-President Bush -- is Gerald Ford.
Ford, who could have born a grudge against Reagan, put on such an impassioned campaign for his old rival that it sometimes seemed he was stumping for himself. Reagan, his aides said, was at first suprised by Ford's zeal in his behalf. Then Reagan and Ford began to warm toward each other. By election time they had become relatively close political friends with Ford remaining one of Reagan's chief advisers.
It was Ford who first told Reagan that Jim Baker would make a good chief of staff. Prior to that Ford had recommended that Reagan use Bush in that capacity. But when Reagan resisted that idea, the former President jumped in hard in Baker's behalf.
So in the Reagan administration there is a clear fusion of the Reagan and Ford camps --with Bush in the vice-presidency, Baker as chief of staff, and with Ford playing the role of friend and adviser to the President.
Meanwhile, Baker, by giving 100 percent loyalty and support to the President, has quickly been accepted not only by him but also by veteran Reaganites in the inner circle, Messrs. Meese and Deave r.