WASHINGTON — Yes, this mild, soft-spoken, affable man is, arguably, the third- most influential person in the United States. I'm referring to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who was discussing national affairs with journalists at breakfast the other morning. In my opinion, he ranks after the president and the speaker of the House in influence.
At the end of the hour's session as moderator, I said I was struck by how low-key and understated he was, and wondered whether he realized what an important public figure he had become of late. He smiled and - saying he just had a job to do, and he was trying to do it - quietly changed the subject.
Senator Daschle speaks softly all right; but he also carries a big stick - and, on occasion, uses it. He came to this same Monitor breakfast during the early months of the last presidential campaign and urged us reporters to turn our gaze away from President Clinton's personal problems for a while and to look into candidate George W. Bush's personal background.
Shortly after that, Governor Bush, under pressure from journalistic questioning, disclosed his bout with liquor during his youth - and how he had stopped drinking at age 40.
And now the Capitol's "Quiet Man" was sitting with us at breakfast only a few hours after stirring up a political ruckus by criticizing President Bush's handling of foreign affairs at the very moment that Mr. Bush was visiting Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and was headed for Italy and his first economic summit.
A miffed National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice phoned Mr. Daschle, complaining that it was a break from traditional bipartisanship for the leader of the other party to criticize a president when he was abroad. Daschle said to reporters afterward that he should probably have given more thought to Bush being abroad when he made these comments - but that he was sticking to his guns.
Daschle had said in an interview that there was a fragile relationship "that is becoming more and more evident" between the US and its allies and then added: "I think we are isolating ourselves, and in so isolating ourselves, I think we're minimizing ourselves."
A defiant president had responded that he was "plenty capable of conducting foreign policy in a way that reflects positively on our nation."
So that was the battle of words between Daschle and Bush only a few hours before Daschle came to breakfast and was quickly being asked to assess George W.'s presidency. "To be honest with you," he started off, "I feel a little bit reticent to comment about the president while he is abroad and talking to foreign leaders. But I will say this: We are now looking at a Bush economy, and I am very concerned about it."
Daschle did not repeat his earlier criticism of Bush as a world leader. He made it clear to us that he felt he has said enough along that line.
He told us that he has found George W. an agreeable fellow and that he gets along quite well with him. But, at the same time, Daschle gave the president "only a gentleman's C" for his performance thus far - mainly because he feels the president has become responsible for what he sees as a failing economy.
Although he says he gets along fine with Bush, Daschle said: "I think it would be helpful if there was a lot more communication [between us]. I suggested to the president a long time ago to try what President Eisenhower did: He called the leaders down to the White House once a week. And I think that's a good idea. It's a process that would solve a lot of our communication difficulties."
Here a reporter asked: "What did Bush say to this?" Daschle: "He didn't comment. But Bill Clinton didn't do it, either. I don't know whether any president has done this since Eisenhower."
Here, Daschle added: "I think there ought to be more communication among leaders in Congress, too. Maybe we will do that."
It certainly will be interesting to see how Bush treats Daschle in the aftermath of their exchange of words over how the president is conducting foreign affairs. Will their communication improve - as Daschle says he hopes? Or will their relationship become frigid and their get-togethers even rarer than they are today?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor