In selecting the great-grandson of former President Taft to replace W. Paul Thayer as No. 2 man at the Pentagon, the Reagan administration has acted quickly to remove the taint of scandal and control the effects it still may have on defense spending and relations with Congress.
William Howard Taft IV is a young, well-respected lawyer who brings three particularly valuable qualities to the job of deputy defense secretary.
He has a close personal relationship with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who delegates much of the department's day-to-day management to his deputy. This has developed over years of assisting Mr. Weinberger in his various top government posts. Mr. Taft has had solid Pentagon experience as general counsel there for the past three years. And his background includes no ties to defense industries (as Mr. Thayer's did) that would make him suspect in the eyes of some critics.
These assets will be particularly important as Taft assumes a key role in pushing for the fourth and most difficult year in the administration's first-term plan to rearm America.
''It's a critical time for someone new to come aboard,'' said Rep. Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Judging by early reports, the White House will not back down in seeking significant increases in defense spending, notwithstanding waning public support in this area and concerns over mounting federal deficits. And the administration evidently will continue to resist what it sees as congressional meddling in such things as weapons testing and spare parts procurement. Taft will find these particularly challenging.
For fiscal year 1984 Congress gave the Pentagon less than 4 percent in real spending increases, a total of $250 billion. The official administration defense request for 1985 will not be announced for several weeks. But it reportedly will total more than $300 billion, an increase of well over 10 percent not counting inflation.
Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Taft will be thrust into this reheated budget debate just as the 1984 election year begins in earnest. But he will not be assuming his new budgetary role unprepared. He was a close assistant to Weinberger when the latter was director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon White House. And at the Pentagon, the defense secretary has often called on Taft to play a part in broader defense decisions, including those related to the budget.
''I think he can step in without missing a beat of the oar,'' observes Representative Courter, who chairs the 72-member Military Reform Caucus on Capitol Hill. ''He's a good guy I've heard, a hard worker, very loyal, someone who knows the situation very well.''
But this personal regard for Taft does not mean that the administration will encounter any less flak in trying to see its military budget fly.
''They must know that it's not going to be greeted with a great deal of glee from the Senate and the House,'' says Courter, who represents a new breed of Republicans critical of some fundamental Pentagon practices. ''I just can't imagine that that type of increase is going to be received and passed. It's going to be pared down as it was in 1984.''
Among other things, the Military Reform Caucus will be trying to inject more competition into weapons procurement. It will be Taft's job to represent the administration in accommodating such congressional activism.
Here, his style - less confrontational than that of Mr. Thayer - may be helpful. So, too, will be the lack of personal scandal that Thayer would have carried into the new budget cycle had he chosen (or been allowed) to stay while fighting charges of illegal business dealings.
According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Thayer passed ''insider'' information on corporate activities while he was chairman of the LTV Corporation, a major defense contractor, to friends and associates who reaped nearly $2 million in benefits. This allegedly took place before Thayer assumed his Pentagon post a year ago, and he is not charged with gaining financially himself. But the SEC contends that leaking information on mergers and other corporate matters is illegal in any case. And the Justice Department is investigating whether any of the defendants in the case tried to obstruct the SEC probe.
Thayer contends that the charge is ''based on a distorted view of selected facts and disregards the facts that establish my innocence.''