Johnson: Mondale's No. 1 honcho

James Johnson has devoted 12 years of his career to putting Walter Mondale in the White House, but when the roar went up for Mr. Mondale at the Democratic convention last night, Mr. Johnson may have winced.

Johnson, the chairman of Mondale's election campaign, loathes loud noises. Even first hurrahs.

There is a stillness at the center of this man who is Walter Mondale's chief of staff, his Norwegian alter ego, and the quiet cyclone behind the ''brilliant'' campaign that won Mondale the nomination.

Johnson is something of a mystery man who has kept an extremely low profile in public until now. But Sunday night in San Francisco he was suddenly in the spotlight, announcing on all three major TV networks the compromise that resulted in Charles Manatt's staying on as Democratic National Committee chairman through the election and Bert Lance's becoming general chairman of the national campaign. Johnson himself remains chairman of the Mondale-for-President campaign, retaining the force and title as Mondale's chief honcho. He is Mondale's James Baker, his Hamilton Jordan, his Bob Haldeman. And if Mondale wins, probably the next White House chief of staff.

(Some within Mondale's inner circle, as well as many of the Democratic Party's principals, cringed at the way the Lance-Manatt affair was handled. Later, some observers suggested the gaffe was due to what they viewed as the extreme isolation maintained by Mondale's inner council during its deliberation over who should run the party apparatus.

(Despite this brief turbulence, the Mondale campaign to date receives high marks.)

Political pro Frank Mankiewicz, a top adviser to the Hart presidential campaign, assessed Johnson's running of Mondale's preconvention campaign: ''I think it's the best-run political campaign I've ever seen. Brilliant. Especially the delegate (winning) operation. They are really something. Mondale is a doughty, tough professional, and good candidate. But I think if they had not had that great an organization, they might not have made it.''

Controlled, restrained, ordered, taciturn, even a technocrat, is the way Johnson is perceived in clips about him as campaign chairman. But to walk into his office in a modern orange brick building at the edge of Georgetown is to meet another James Johnson. This Jim Johnson looks, talks, and acts like a candidate himself. He is 6 feet, 21/2 inches tall, with an all-American smile. He has the sort of relaxed charm you sometimes see on professional athletes at the top of their game. He is dressed in a somewhat preppy version of the formal political uniform known in the Mondale camp as ''the full Norwegian'': white shirt, red and navy rep tie, anthracite gray summer suit, black socks and black, highly polished oxfords, one with an Adlai Stevenson-esque hole in the sole.

He talks in an eager baritone, the Minnesota edge smoothed by years of studying and teaching at Princeton, the words flowing forth in a steady fountain: ''I wouldn't trade the opportunity to be head of Mondale's campaign for president for anything. I think running a presidential campaign is as interesting a thing as there is to do. And it involves a combination of challenges unlike almost any job in America, its substance, its strategy, its politics, its organization, its timing, its people, its unbelievably complex, never-ending choices.''

But would he like to be Mondale's White House chief of staff? ''Oh, I presume he'd want to make that decision himself, rather than have me announce it to you, '' he laughs as he does frequently, a boyish, boisterous laugh. And then he says he just wants to be helpful in whatever job Mondale would choose for him, adding that he's confident Mondale would have a chief of staff, unlike President Carter.

Johnson is a veteran presidential campaigner, who has worked on the Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, and Mondale presidential campaigns. Both of them. He was one of three trusted aides who plotted the dress rehearsal, the first presidential campaign that Mondale dropped out of in 1974 because he ''wasn't ready yet.'' Johnson had taken a brief leave of absence as director of public affairs at the Dayton Hudson Corporation of Minneapolis and never looked back.

After 12 years of majoring in Mondale, including four years by his side as executive assistant to the vice-president, Johnson admits he has ''an instinctive sense'' of how Mondale feels about a thousand things, situations, and people. In that sense, and because he has a phenomenal memory bank, Johnson may be Mondale's personal computer. A totally dedicated one.

''Jim took holy orders when he entered the quest,'' says Mondale campaign strategist Dick Leone, who knew Johnson when they were both graduate students at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Johnson himself says: ''I don't think it is so much devoting the time to Walter Mondale. I see it more as standing up and working for what I believe in. I think his approach to the most important problems facing our country is right. Working with Mondale gives me the opportunity to make a difference in what I care about.''

Betty Ann Ottinger, a dean at the Washington School of Psychiatry, knows Johnson well through the involvement in p'oliticis of her ex-husband, former Rep. Richard Ottinger. ''He's sensitive, caring, a loyal and devoted friend. He's also very sort of controlled. They (Mondale and Johnson) do that, they need to be in control, to have order, and to have your emotions under control. You know the story about how (you can tell) Jim and Walter are having a fight: They just sit and glare at each other.''

Johnson sits in his big brown-leather chair in a corner office filled with sleek teak furniture and green plants in baskets. His back is to the view of treetops and the Potomac in the distance as he debunks ''the Norwegian mythology'' that has grown up in the press around the campaign: ''It's like a stereotype of us wonderful Norwegians, that we're boring, bland, solid people who are relatively humorless and certainly not passionate.''

But Johnson has approached life with a quiet passion, was a '60s civil rights activist as a student at the University of Minnesota, joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, was vice-president of the National Student Association, headed the Vietnam Moratorium and the Cambodian Invasion strike committee at Princeton.

At Princeton, Dick Holbrooke remembers Johnson taking over and controlling a student uprising that threatened violence to the campus.

''He's controlled, centered, knows exactly who he is,'' says Mr. Holbrooke. Campaign press secretary Maxine Isaacs, who has dated Johnson for several years, says, ''Jim is so still.'' She remembers how he stood, still as a statue, not moving a muscle for 45 minutes, ''as he watched his whole cause and world fall apart'' in a Portland hotel when the Maine caucus returns came in.

Johnson's mother says that as a boy growing up in Benson, Minn., he was ''very serious, very grown up all the time. He liked to sit and listen to adults. He was always listening.'' Johnson's family munched on politics for breakfast, lunch, and supper. His father, Alfred Ingvald Johnson, ran for election 10 times during Jim's boyhood and was twice speaker in the Minnesota State Capitol. Jim was a Boy Scout, a basketball player, a comer who had opened his own checking account at 12 with the money he earned mowing lawns.

Today he works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., walks across the street to his tasteful duplex apartment, watches all three networks' news on his five TV sets, then trots off to the Palm restaurant for steak, salad, and political talk with friends. Before going to bed he checks the early edition of the Washington Post ''to make sure that we haven't been killed on something I'm worried about.''

What happens to Jim Johnson if the man he has devoted 12 years of his career to doesn't become president? His friend Dick Leone suggests Johnson would end up running a major American company in 10 years. All his friends say he'd survive. Well. Johnson says he'd never become involved in another presidential campaign but he looks ahead 10 years and adds, surprisingly, ''I would never rule out running for office.''

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