HOWARD BAKER JR. gets credit for a job well done. The Tennessean, former majority leader of the Senate, came to the post of White House chief of staff in early 1987, with the Iran-contra scandal at its height. He leaves having helped Ronald Reagan survive the tangles of that episode and having played a key coordinating role in the INF Treaty and the Moscow summit. Mr. Baker's record as the administration's top coordinator testifies to the effectiveness of well-honed diplomatic and political skills, tempered with Southern geniality. He restored the morale of a White House staff bruised by Iran-contra and the more autocratic management style of his predecessor, Donald Regan. What could have been a tailspin for the last two years of the Reagan presidency became a much steadier flight, thanks partly to Baker's presence.
His successor as chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, will likely hold to the course Baker set, though with his own more hard-driving management approach.
Baker's readiness to take on a tough job at a tough time provided Americans a model of public service. He had already labored for years in the political vineyards, and once ran for president himself. Still, he was willing to step away from private life for perhaps one last time to help pull things together in a stumbling administration.
Baker was not alone in helping the Reagan administration recover its bearings. Steadier hands also took hold in foreign policy after the Iran-contra debacle - the team of George Shultz at the State Department, Frank Carlucci at the Defense Department, and Colin Powell at the National Security Council.
But as Howard Baker goes back to Tennessee to attend to personal matters, he takes the nation's gratitude with him.