Washington — IT is not only Howard Baker and Frank Carlucci who have set a different style at the White House. The new tone of ``professionalism'' reaches down into the press briefing room where White House chief spokesman Marlin Fitzwater has quickly won a reputation for fairness and credibility. A baldish, round-faced man with ruddy cheeks, Mr. Fitzwater was chosen three months ago by former chief of staff Donald Regan to replace longtime spokesman Larry Speakes, who left to take a job with Merrill Lynch. But unlike some Regan-appointed aides who are now on their way out of the White House, Fitzwater got a nod of approval from his new boss, chief of staff Baker.
The White House press corps is relieved.
``He has lightened the atmosphere,'' says Helen Thomas, the veteran correspondent with United Press International. ``He's balanced and reasonable. When you put a question to him, he thinks about it, and he isn't hostile and confrontational.''
``He's doing a fine job,'' remarks CBS correspondent Bill Plante. ``He's handled difficult questions forthrightly, and he hasn't tried some of the more lubricious forms of evasion.''
Ellen Hume of the Wall Street Journal says, ``He has lots more credibility than Speakes ever did. He's known for being fair, and he handles himself professionally.''
The job of chief White House spokesman, who tells the world what a president does, says, and thinks, is difficult under the best of circumstances. It is fraught with political and diplomatic mine fields when a president is fighting for his political life because of a scandal. A White House spokesman has to impart accurate information (if he can get it) and be careful not to mislead the press, while protecting the president from damaging statements and putting the best light possible on his actions and policies.
Fitzwater brings to the job 20 years of experience as a government press officer and speech writer. He is a native of Kansas who worked as a reporter while studying journalism, and he began his government career at the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. Early in the Reagan administration he served as a public affairs aide at the Treasury Department.
Later he became deputy to Mr. Speakes and most recently he was Vice-President George Bush's press secretary.
Even with this background, Fitzwater is being forced to be a quick learner, absorbing as much as he can on everything from the tangled events of the Iran-contra operations to the intricacies of arms control. It is a hectic, demanding exercise.
``I like my job,'' says Fitzwater after two months of genial combat with the press. ``It forces an intellectual exercise in a way I've never had before. The challenge to learn about issues in a fast and thorough way is greater than I ever anticipated.''
At this point the challenge is still one of finding out himself what is going on at the White House and keeping a jump ahead of the reporters.
``I have to know more than I talk about,'' he remarks. ``It's like running down an alley on every issue - you know you will get to the end and you will have to say, `I don't know any more.' That's a very humbling experience.''
It remains to be seen how closely clued in to the Oval Office and how influential Fitzwater will be. After a shaky start, Speakes ultimately got fairly high marks on this score. But to the relief of the horde of journalists covering the White House on a daily basis, Fitzwater has appreciably changed the circuslike atmosphere in the West Wing briefing room.
Larry Speakes thrived on verbal repartee and confrontation. His style was combative, and the daily briefings resembled theater more than the kind of professional briefings given at the State Department. Speakes fed a show-biz atmosphere in which he and reporters often ended up exchanging insults as well as witticisms. It was not, of course, a style discouraged by Speakes's superiors.
``All the personal sniping and attacks have stopped,'' says ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson. ``He does not call us names and we do not call him names. ... When I talk to Marlin, he clearly wants to be helpful, and doesn't make it appear that he's doing me a favor.''
With the Iran-contra affair still threatening, the White House naturally has an interest in lowering the level of conflict and tension with the press. ``That's the reason they picked Fitzwater,'' says Martha Kumar, a communications expert at Towson State University. ``By the end of an administration they do not find any value in fighting with the press and the President tends to withdraw more.''
If the sharp edge is gone, the humor is not - a quality essential to surviving briefing-room pressures. Rare is the session that passes without some levity. After Howard Baker moved into the White House, for instance, Fitzwater told reporters Mr. Baker would require no wholesale firings or requests for resignations and that he, Fitzwater, would be allowed to stay.
Reporter: ``So you have the job, is that it? I mean, you have the job permanently?''
Fitzwater: ``He said I would be staying, yes.''
Reporter: ``Why?'' (Laughter.)
Fitzwater: ``It may be his first lapse in judgment.''
Print reporters are especially pleased with the change. It was Speakes's style to play to the television correspondents, who have assigned seats in front. ``When you deal with what our target audience is, it's the dozen or so people who are most influential in the White House briefing room,'' he told the Monitor in 1985. ``Clearly that's the network and major newspapers in Washington ... because that's where people get their information.''
Fitzwater is careful not to criticize his predecessor, but from the start he has set a practice of calling on journalists in the back rows as well as the front. ``Everyone has a right to ask a question,'' he says. ``The half-a-million-dollar stars are in the front row, and I'll see that they get their questions answered, but I will not do it to the exclusion of everyone else.''
He has also opened his office door to reporters, who in the past were frustrated by limited access and unanswered telephone calls. ``Marlin's more dedicated to openness,'' says Mr. Donaldson. ``But [the lack of it] was not all Speakes's fault - he took with him a policy that Don Regan put in place.''
How much access does Fitzwater have to President Reagan, an access that measures how much he really knows?
``In terms of how he manages, I'm as close as I need to be,'' Fitzwater says. ``Jody Powell under Carter had the closest access, but it didn't mean better information because of that. I'm very pleased with my access and conversations. He calls me, he watches the news - and suggests when there's a better way to say things.''
But in terms of his relationship with the press, Fitzwater indicates, it is better not to let reporters know just how much he does see the President.
Judging from his performance to date, Fitzwater will not seek the television limelight. He is in fact acutely conscious of the power of the medium and how it can distort the meaning of words. He says that several months ago he was asked to go on TV with a quotation that appeared in a newspaper. He refused.
``With print the words are there, and I have to consider that the reader believes them and makes an interpretation,'' he says. ``But on television I have to consider the story line, my face, and the narrator's presentation. Those issues are far more important than the words.''