New York — Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige used to tell his subordinates they had to take the lead in such key areas as trade or competitiveness, ``or the wild men would take over.'' With the accidental death of Mr. Baldrige in a horseback riding accident Saturday in California, the Reagan administration is suddenly faced with finding someone who can follow the secretary's advice.
The toughest negotiating over the trade bill lies ahead in the House-Senate conference. The loss of Baldrige is a blow to the White House. Persuading the Senate-House conferees to change parts of the legislation that the President opposes is an essential part of the administration's policy on the trade bill.
``We need to get someone who can keep the hawks at bay and still accomplish something fundamentally positive,'' says Robert Dederick, a former commerce undersecretary and an economist at Northern Trust Company in Chicago.
Baldrige was one of the administration's lead wranglers, responsible for sections of the trade bill dealing with export controls, the foreign corrupt-practices act, export trading companies, antidumping, and countervailing duties.
With only a few months left to negotiate on the trade bill, James Robinson III, chairman of American Express Company, says, ``We need to get someone into the job who does not have to go through much of a learning curve.''
Mr. Robinson, who is also vice-chairman of the Business Council, notes that besides the trade bill, the United States is involved in key talks with Canada over a bilateral trade treaty and in the new round of negotiations to open up trade under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The commerce secretary is heavily involved in both issues. ``Getting the earliest possible appointment is critical,'' Robinson says.
Among those whose names are already being mentioned are Bruce Smart, undersecretary for international trade, Labor Secretary William Brock, and US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter. Deputy Secretary Clarence Brown is expected to be named acting secretary.
Whoever is nominated will run a department of 34,914 employees who track the economy, set standards for such everyday items as milk cartons, assist in minority business development, promote tourism, register patents and trademarks, chart the oceans, make weather predictions, and take census numbers. In addition, Baldrige expanded the secretary's job to include input on critical trade issues.
Baldrige was one of three original members of the President's 1981 Cabinet who continued to serve. He was a key player in the decision to penalize the Japanese for dumping semiconductor chips. He also was a critic of the merger of Fairchild Semiconductor with Fujistsu Ltd. Baldrige's opposition killed the proposed merger. And, most recently, he persuaded the Japanese government to tighten its export control policy to prevent high-tech secrets from being sold to the Soviet Union. Within the administration, Baldrige was responsible for trying to modify the legislation in Congress to penalize Toshiba for selling such secrets.
Often involved in the same battles as Baldrige, fellow Cabinet member Yeutter said, ``What differentiated Secretary Baldrige from most people was his extraordinarily good judgment, common sense that never ran out, and an exceptional ability to keep life in perspective.''
His political opponents also praised him. ``The country has lost a good man, and the administration has lost a fine public servant,'' said Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Unlike many Washington bureaucrats, Baldrige was a quiet-spoken man. ``You had to lean forward to hear him,'' Mr. Dederick recalls, ``but he was tough underneath.'' The staff at the Commerce Department liked him because of the way he bounced back from minor political defeats. ``He never got down,'' Dederick says. ``He just kept working along, increasing his influence.''
Reporters remember ``Mac,'' as he was called, as a courteous Cabinet officer who would always stop to answer questions. He was never pompous and never lectured people.
Born in Nebraska, his great love was cowboys, and he frequently wore Western belt buckles and participated in professional rodeos. As Dederick noted, however, looks could be deceiving. ``Your first reaction was here's an aw-shucks cowboy. But underneath that, there was a mind going full tilt.''