In defense of Howard Baker

A GROWING perception in Washington is that as a presidential chief of staff, Howard Baker Jr. has been an uninfluential flunky. This is not true. Mr. Baker's style is one of pleasant persuasion, never confrontation. Yet in his quiet way and in a relatively few months, Baker has had a major impact. It has been Baker more than anyone else around the President who was able to bring Ronald Reagan around to consider accepting taxes to reduce the budget deficit.

Baker, too, has helped nudge the President toward conciliation on the Nicaraguan peace process.

Again, as snags loomed in preparations for East-West summitry, Baker encouraged the President's inclination to stay on course.

This is not an assertive chief of staff. But Mr. Reagan likes the genial Tennessean and values his advice.

Misconceptions, nonetheless, swirl around Baker:

Misconception: He has failed because Reagan's reputation as a leader has declined rather than improved since the former Senate majority leader came on board.

Fact: Baker knew he was in for heavy seas when he signed on - after the President had issued a strong plea that the senator accept the post being vacated by Donald Regan, who left in a storm of criticism.

Out of patriotism Baker took on the rescue operation, knowing that the Iran-contra scandal was bound to damage the administration - and possibly himself along with it.

Baker supported the President during the months of Iran-contra travail. He has done much to see that the President became engaged in shoring up the economy. He could hardly have done more.

Misconception: Baker didn't keep the President from his embarrassing Supreme Court appointments. He appears to have been outslugged by Attorney General Edwin Meese III in influencing the President in these nominations. He obviously didn't have the President's ear.

Fact: The President was listening to himself in these decisions. He wanted a justice who echoed his conservatism and who might swing the court in that direction for years to come. Both Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg were chosen by Reagan. He liked Mr. Bork's stated conservatism, Mr. Ginsburg's youth.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Reagan took Mr. Meese's recommendations over those of Baker when he appointed Bork and then Ginsburg. Again, the fact is that Reagan was listening to himself when he made those choices.

Misconception: Baker should have kept Reagan from those mistakes.

Fact: Baker did raise questions; but he could not break down the President's intense desire to put his ideological imprint on the court. Baker was interested in getting someone who, like Judge Anthony Kennedy, could be confirmed. He held to that view. But he couldn't make that view prevail - until Bork and Ginsburg lost out and the President came around to admitting that he had become a ``wiser'' man.

Further, Baker sees his job as one of presenting the options and discussing the possible problems with the President. He did that with Bork and Ginsburg. Beyond this, Baker feels he should not and could not go.

What Howard Baker knows and what Mr. Regan and James Baker learned when they were in the same job: that this President, when actively engaged in decisionmaking, is a very determined man.

Misconception: But everyone knows that it was the President's old friend Meese who was choosing those court appointees.

Fact: Meese did recommend Bork. But Reagan had already made up his mind on that appointment. And on Ginsburg, Meese insisted, in a conversation with Democratic leader Robert Strauss, that he had made no recommendation and that the President had made the call.

Mr. Strauss, talking to reporters over breakfast, said he thought Meese was telling the truth. ``When he makes up his mind,'' Strauss said, ``this is a very stubborn President. This has hurt him at times - and also has been one of his biggest assets.''

Misconception: While many liberals attack Baker for not guiding the President in the court appointments, conservatives bash him for caving in on Ginsburg.

Fact: The President himself quickly had enough when Ginsburg's earlier drug use surfaced.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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