Charles Manatt: the good soldier

No one should forget the intramural struggle that broke out at the Democratic convention when the attempted ouster of Charles Manatt almost overshadowed an otherwise highly successful event. The fact is that Walter Mondale's campaign has never been able to put its act together since then.

There has been Geraldine Ferraro's preoccupation with her financial disclosure, coming soon after her selection to the No. 2 spot on the ticket. And bad weather at the formal opening of Mr. Mondale's campaign, followed by faulty mikes and logistical errors, has doubtless caused the candidate to feel he is snake bitten.

But when the presidential candidate is unable to replace a Democratic national chairman with someone more to his liking, it reveals more than ineptitude. It shows that he has a basic weakness among his own Democratic leaders, and that generally bodes ill for his ability to wage a winning campaign.

No one has bothered to pay much attention to how the much-put-upon Manatt has comported himself since that weekend in San Francisco when Mondale first fired him and then - when Democratic leaders protested his Bert Lance-for-Manatt replacement - rehired him. The fact is that Mr. Manatt has been admirably gracious.

When Manatt got the news of Mondale's decision to drop him, some of his associates advised him to leave in anger - to hold a press conference, lash out at Mondale, and then abruptly depart for home.

But he kept cool, at least outwardly, and merely told reporters he would continue until after the convention before making a quiet departure. Soon, of course, with the help of the party uprising against the change, he was back on the job.

Manatt had more than the usual reasons for quarreling with the displacement decision. He thought he had an understanding with Mondale that he would stay on until January. Also, it was no fun to learn about Mondale's move to discard him by reading it in the papers.

And in the weeks since the convention Mondale and his people have been little more than ''correct'' in dealing with their unwanted party chairman. He's still a part of the campaign planning. However, he only hears of the major strategy decisions made by Mondale's inner circle after they are made.

But in all his public appearances Manatt remains stoutly supportive of Mondale. Reporters have tried, in their questioning, to get the chairman to own up that down deep he has less than the highest regard for Mondale, but to no avail. Manatt is intent on playing the role of the good soldier.

Manatt has had his critics since he took over as chairman in 1980, when he had been one of the few who eagerly campaigned to take on the task of picking up the pieces from that devastating defeat inflicted by Reagan.

Manatt is particularily good at the mechanics of his job, what politicians call ''nuts and bolts.'' He has set up a training program for candidates and their staffs which has ''graduated'' about 5,000 in the last three years.

He is responsible, too, for the Democratic Party's new national headquarters building. And he has talked candidates at various levels - federal, state, and local - into coordinating their efforts in registering new voters.

However, a lot of Democrats, including some of those who work or worked on his staff, haven't thought much of Manatt's ability. They say he lacks proper political instincts and is too difficult to work for.

Manatt's political instincts have been pretty sound of late. By never subordinating his party loyalty to his private anger, he has shown that he's quite a politician. In fact, should Mondale lose, the man who may well be asked to come in for another rescue of the party just might be ''Chuck'' Manatt. He would not be tainted by the defeat, not having been allowed to play a real role in the campaign. And he would not be tainted by being a ''Mondale man.''

Indeed, the party just might take a whole new look at Manatt. And even though he insists that he will be going back to his law office in January, he just might be persuaded to stick around for a while, at least long enough to put the party a bit on its feet again.

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