Washington — Mac Baldrige hunkers down slightly to the right of the caramel-colored leather saddle in his office and twirls out the story about priorities like a rodeo rope:
''I remember one trip I took with a former (rodeo) champion in his camper from Odessa (Neb.) to Denver. He was raising a wife and two kids and had not won any money for two months. And was down to his last few dollars. . . . When suppertime came, and he asked me to fix it, I found two Cokes and a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread in the refrigerator. . . . That's what he'd been eating for the last two days. There were no complaints. Just acceptance of very tough times.''
Mr. Baldrige was then president of Scovill, a Connecticut conglomerate. He continues: ''When I flew back to our corporate headquarters and found the first problem I encountered was one of our vice-presidents who thought he'd been shortchanged on the location of his office, I was able to put things into the proper perspective. Needless to say, the vice-president got short shrift.'' He bites off the sentence like a piece of jerky.
For Malcolm W. Baldrige, the Yale cowboy who's in the saddle as Secretary of Commerce, the perspective is easy. It comes from measuring one kind of life against the other. Baldrige is paradox at a gallop: the multimillionaire who is as proud of his membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as in the Council on Foreign Relations Inc., who became a mill hand in a brass factory and worked his way up to president in 13 years.
He may keep that prize saddle in his office and a lassoing rope in his top drawer, but Baldrige knows, to use the Washington words, ''the perimeters of Cabinet office.'' He does not lope out for an interview in blue jeans, hand-tooled boots, and string tie. In fact, he is the very model of a modern commerce secretary: flawlessly dapper in a double-breasted handmade gray flannel suit by Carmine Fabrizio of Madison Avenue. Mr. Fabrizio says ''Mr. Mac'' used to wear the suits he refers to as ''Chevrolets'' ($400-$600 each) but has jumped over the ''Oldsmobiles'' ($600-$900) and gone directly to the ''Cadillacs'' ($ 800-$4,000) since taking his Cabinet post.
With his flannel Cadillac, Baldrige wears a white shirt, black knit tie, black socks, and black wing-tip shoes. His Yale blue eyes are the dominant feature in a face with the ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman but with finely honed, almost ascetic features. The secretary is on the tall side, lean, gray haired, with a reputation for being as taciturn as Gary Cooper. He holds himself straight as a flagpole.
''Ever had a peanut-butter jellybean?'' he asks the reporter as the interview begins. Then he picks carefully through a bucket-size Waterford bowl full of Reaganite jelly beans until he unearths one and hands it over proudly. Within a few minutes he is lacing into those who clog commerce: ''American management - even more than labor - has been responsible for our lack of productivity increase. In the last decade we simply got used to too much overhead and moved away from some of the basic principles into too many side issues - neglected quality, neglected manufacturing costs. We had too large staffs. . . .
''As corny as it sounds, the stark difference between the two styles of life I've described (cowboy and corporate management) has always helped me keep things in perspective. . . .'' He praises his rodeo friends for their self-reliance, saying, ''I've learned a lot from their willingness to conquer adversity and from their sense of proportion about their life and careers.''
Malcolm Baldrige of Hotchkiss, Yale, and the Commerce Department may be part of the Eastern establishment on the surface. But underneath, like a burr under the saddle, is a certain Western distrust for that establishment's values and games. He may dress like the chairman of the board to meet finance ministers in his vast Hooverian office, but perhaps that's just insurance against another Hotchkiss incident.
He was the Westerner, the outsider who showed up at the very Eastern Hotchkiss prep school wearing a green tweed suit with a belt in the back. His classmates teased him unmercifully about that suit, an incident that still rankles as a reminder of ''the Eastern-establishment dress code.'' He adds: ''Besides the dress customs, they'd all grown up sailing and playing tennis while I'd been out cowboying. . . . While some of them may have looked down their noses a bit at this Nebraskan, I looked down my nose a bit at the activities they'd been pursuing.''
His wife, Midge, separately brings up the subject of that green tweed suit that made him the Eastern preppy target of such mockery. It made him vow that ''ever thereafter, no one was going to make him feel so badly.''
His sister, Tish Baldrige Hollensteiner, who was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary in the White House, says: ''He's full of paradoxes. He's very well tailored, yet he likes you to think of him in jeans low around the hips and properly scuffed cowboy boots. He enjoys that. His heart is in the West, but his body and his mind are in the East.''
Baldrige grew up in a big old house in Omaha, Neb., during the depression. His father (a lawyer) and mother were community leaders who organized charities, giving their two sons and daughter a comfortable but not affluent life. The house was always jammed with kids, like a clubhouse for the friends of both Malcolm and his brother, Robert. From the time he was 14 until he was 20, Baldrige worked summers as a cowhand on ranches in western Nevada and Nebraska. It left a permanent brand on his life.
In his late teens, the cowboy headed east. It was still hard times, and Baldrige remembers his father lining the three of them up and saying he was sorry, there was only enough money to send two of them to college. Since Malcolm was the oldest, he said, it was up to him to buckle into his high school studies and get a scholarship so the other two could be sure of an education. Mac not only got a scholarship to Hotchkiss, he got a full working scholarship to Yale. To keep it, he had to stay at the top of his class. He also worked selling suit-pressing contracts and collecting bills for three or four hours a day, for a university-sponsored dry cleaner.
He went from Yale to war, becoming a battery commander with the 27th Infantry Division during World War II. Back from the war, he took his Yale degree and marched off to become a mill hand at Eastern Malleable Iron Corporation's brass mill in Waterbury, Conn. He spent two years pouring iron and making molds in the company's six plants all over the country (''fiery, hot, tough work, but I liked it''). He learned the industry from the bottom up, zooming to the presidency after 13 years.
His sister, Tish, suggests that taking the mill-hand job was not a whimsical step - that her brother had studied the firm's management, knew it was on the way to retirement, needed new blood. All his college friends were flooding Wall Street after the war, ''but heavy industry didn't have any Yalies. All his steps were calculated.''
Already a war hero to the men he worked with, he became one of the guys, spoke their lingo, went to Polish weddings and Irish wakes, became their representative to management, she recalls. ''We all knew he was destined for success. He's always been disciplined, . . . always in control.'' She talks about the true grit he's shown in overcoming a physical problem once diagnosed as potentially crippling. He refused to accept it, hurled himself into long hours of roping and riding, often starting workouts at 4 a.m., and licked it. Tish Baldrige speaks of his dry wit and sophistication, and in a sisterly way describes him as ''tough, sweet, and generous. That's what I think he is, but of course, it doesn't apply to him as secretary of commerce.''
Former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis considers Baldrige ''one of the finest Cabinet officers,'' and suggests he's outstanding enough to be either secretary of the Treasury, or Defense, or head of the Office of Management and Budget if any of those jobs should ever open up: ''He's had a much broader impact in the administration than just as secretary of commerce.'' Occasionally, Mr. Lewis says, Baldrige's candor aggravates people, and Baldrige knows it. The politically feisty Washington Monthly, not known for coddling the bureauracy, says Baldrige is ''the one member of the administration who has shown some foresight about the seriousness of the nation's economic condition,'' and adds that ''his early, correct warnings to Reagan have not won him any chits.''
''I hadn't read that,'' Baldrige says in his slow, thoughtful way. (One observer describes him as ''professionally laconic.'') Pause. ''I think the President has always appreciated and welcomed forthright advice. It's true that I felt during 1981 that recessionary and budget-deficit problems were increasing. It is also true that I have been optimistic about a recovery ever since last summer. I think it's clear now that the recovery has begun. We see too many indices moving in the right direction for that to be doubted. It's really a question whether the recovery could get aborted in 1984 by rising interest rates, because of a congressional lack of will to reduce the budget deficits.'' But aren't interest rates going down?
''Yes, I feel that there's more pressure now on interest rates going down than there is for them to go up. But if Congress doesn't address the budget-deficit problems as the President has recommended, that could have an adverse effect on interest rates. I think they will, because the vast majority of the Congress is also worried about high budget deficits. So I'm optimistic there will be an accommodation on that. But until we see that happen, there has to be some concern.''
The morning interview breaks off at this point, because of a thick schedule, and he suggests coming back at noon to finish it off. Baldrige leads the way out of the vast baronial room that is the office of the secretary of commerce.
When Herbert Hoover was secretary, he decided his rooms weren't impressive enough and had this office built. It is a cathedral of commerce - high, vaulted ceilings; mahogany-paneled walls; a rug that's the color and thickness of Devonshire cream and the length of a soccer field. Several bronze rodeo sculptures by Harry Jackson paw the air. At one end is a conversational grouping of sofa and chairs in oatmeal tweed. Half-way down is a black marble fireplace, over which looms an oil painting of Hoover himself. At the other end, just beyond the secretary's desk, a board-room table that seats 12 in chairs covered with a Yale blue-and-white diamond pattern. Can a cowboy feel comfortable in this lavish office? ''Please,'' he winces, ''Not lavish. Well, at first I didn't. It's about three times the size of the office I'm used to. But it's large for practical reasons,'' he says, and ticks off the number of visiting delegations.
At noon, it turns out, the secretary wants to finish the interview over lunch. So we sit at one end of the long, polished board-room table like a couple in a New Yorker cartoon about the perils of the rich. We fork our way through a four-star chicken salad, prepared and served by the secretary's cook, Ethel Warr , as Baldrige talks about his diverse job. The secretary of commerce is regent of a vast but fragmented empire that includes weather forecasts (which he's trying to sell off), the census, public works, patents and trademarks, charting the oceans, controlling imports and exports, and a Bureau of Competitive Assessment. He says his major accomplishment so far is ''strengthening the overall Commerce Department as more of a leading player in the government circles.''
It is no secret in Washington that in some administrations the secretary of commerce has been something of a cream-puff job awarded for party loyalty, like an ambassadorship to Ruritania. ''Well, I've never had a cream-puff job,'' says Baldrige, with a semidangerous glint in his eye. ''So I don't know what they're like. . . .'' He says he took the job mainly because the President wanted the commerce role strengthened.
In the book ''Reagan's Ruling Class,'' published by Ralph Nader's Presidential Accountability Group, authors Ronald Brown and Nina Easton criticize Baldrige for his preoccupation with international-trade issues and a reputation for being ''an invisible man around the department.'' Baldrige explains it's impossible in a department like commerce, with 38,000 employees, to shake hands and be known personally by everyone. Instead, he says, he chose to take a long time picking just the right assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries, who in turn pick the most able people they can find - so in turn, ''you multiply yourself by 150 to get the job done.''
Even an Atari Democrat like Commerce Committee member Rep. Timothy Worth of Colorado says Baldrige has ''done a very good job on a number of his appointments, brought a sense of mission to the department, gotten the various offices to work with each other.''
Baldrige's track record reflects his management abilities. Under his presidency, Scovill, which had begun as a brass mill, became a Connecticut conglomerate with branches in 22 countries. It zoomed from $149 million in sales to $941 million when he left. When Baldrige decided to phase out the brass mill, says Leonard Leganza, executive vice-president of finance at Scovill, Baldrige handled the situation diplomatically and compassionately. Mr. Leganza says Baldrige insisted on selling the 170-year-old mill to buyers who would continue the operation instead of closing it down and putting 2,000 people out of work.
Hubert (Hubie) Williamson, executive director of Pearl Street Community Center in Waterbury, Conn., says his longtime friend Mac Baldrige ''doesn't say much, but he understands what needs to happen'' in community and race relations. He says Baldrige was one of the most powerful men in the town during the social unrest of the '60s, and was responsible for gathering over $50,000 in seed money to start a skills center for young people. He also led community drives for Red Cross, Easter Seals, and YMCA campaigns.
''Mac has helped a lot of people out in the rodeo world,'' says his friend of 15 years, Robert (Bob) Ragdale, former president of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. He says Baldrige is known as a ''heeler,'' roping the animals' heels. ''He's a tough man, . . . he's won and placed at some of the top events in the country.'' He says of Baldrige, who rides frequently with the President: ''He stays on a horse really solid. . . . His greatest love is roping. He'd be up as soon as it started cracking daylight, practicing.''
When Baldrige took the reins at commerce he decided bureaucratic language was a vat of sorghum molasses and he wasn't going to get stuck in it. He issued orders that everything - memos, letters, speeches - had to be written in simple, concise English. No ''finalizing,'' ''interfacing,'' ''serious crises'' or other governmental cliches. He told staffers he wanted everyone to write like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, and had a computer program set up that rejects the offending words.
In real life, Baldrige admits to a weakness for not just Zane Grey, but also the westerns of Louis L'Amour, for the long hot baths he learned to love in Japan, and for beef and black-eyed peas.
His wife, Midge, says he loves life on their 70,000-acre New Mexico ranch. She thinks of him as ''determined, relaxed, and kind.'' He thinks of himself as ''average.'' They met at a wedding supper in Pittsburgh, when he straggled in hours late from Cleveland because of problems with a foundry furnace. The couple has two daughters: free-lance writer Megan Murray and Molly Baldrige, a specialist in ranch loans at the Department of Agriculture.
As the interview ends, in the shadow of Herbert Hoover's portrait, Baldrige is asked whether some of the scandals and investigations that have erupted in Washington recently concern him as a Cabinet member. He says: ''That kind of problem is to be expected. The national political scene is not for the thin skinned.'' Baldrige ran the Bush presidential campaign in Connecticut before joining the Reagan team, but has been savvy enough not to become involved in the administration turf wars involving early Reaganites and former Bush men. He says of the current Environmental Protection Agency Superfund investigations: ''. . . It'd be difficult to imagine this or any other administration from the beginning of political history not having political differences that sometimes end up in some crusade or the other.''