Reagan's new right hand

New White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. is a political middle-of-the-roader with formidable government experience and a talent for defusing short fuses. Less than three weeks ago, the former Senate Republican leader from Tennessee was telling reporters that his inclination and desire -- ``no bones about it'' -- was to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

But the storm raised by the Iran-contra affair has swept Mr. Baker into the White House as chief of staff, leaving thoughts of a presidential campaign far behind.

His appointment is being hailed by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On Capitol Hill Baker is widely viewed as someone able to get a two-way line of communication and cooperation flowing again. And Baker says he intends to do that while serving as the President's ``spear carrier'' and promoter of his programs in the final two years of his administration.

The senator first came to prominence in 1973 as vice-chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. He fixed himself in the national memory with his question: ``What did the President know and when did he know it.''

As Senate majority leader beginning in 1981, Baker found himself managing a bloc that ranged the political spectrum during a time when the conservatives were vocally impatient for action. ``I've been able to erect a tent under which most people can sit and sing,'' Baker said.

Some conservatives distrusted Baker, even though he could claim credit for steering many of Reagan's top-priority items through Congress and could point to a generally conservative voting record, including his support for the Vietnam war and larger defense spending.

Conservatives grumbled about his votes for the Panama Canal treaties, and some complained that he had not pushed strongly enough for social legislation they wanted to enact.

Some critics said Baker was too quick to compromise. But supporters said that forging compromises to keep the legislative wheels turning was his greatest strength.

Others hailed his mastery of coalition politics, his pragmatism, his patience, his collegiality, his willingness to spread praise, and his unwillingness to get into losing fights.

Now, facing perhaps his toughest challenge, the former senator must try to get a derailed administration back on track.

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