The Thankless Job Of Party Chairman

PITY poor Clayton Yeutter, one of the most agreeable and pleasant fellows to grace the Washington scene. He was very much at home as secretary of agriculture, doing his job well - certainly working hard at it - and showing wherever he went his grasp of farm problems, farm economics, and economics in general.Then came the ominous call. "Clayton," the voice said (probably John Sununu's, but it might have been the president himself) "we would like you to become national chairman of the Republican Party." At last spring's Gridiron dinner a speaker joshed that the president had been turned down by several others for this job, and as he went down the alphabet he finally got to "Y." I asked Mr. Yeutter how he was persuaded to move from a position where he was making a substantial difference to one that held so many frustrations and where decisionmaking would lie with the White House and not with himself. Yeutter acknowledged that he had decided to take the hit for the team. But he said that he thought he could make a useful contribution by helping elect Republicans to Congress. He has been spending the last few months pursuing that goal, visiting most of the 50 states. Yeutter recently made his first appearance at the Monitor's morning forum - a delayed appearance which, of itself, hinted where the power comes from in the GOP chairman's job. Back when he first took his new position, last January, Yeutter publicly predicted dire political consequences for those in Congress who had voted against the Gulf war. The president didn't want a scrap with the Democrats on the war issue. So he shut Yeutter up (Sununu probably delivered the message) and very little has been heard from him since. Now Yeutter is being trusted out in the cold world of the press again. At the breakfast, he handled himself well on a number of delicate subjects. He was questioned hard on self-described Republican David Duke, candidate for governor of Louisiana and onetime Ku Klux Klan leader. "Everything he says and does," said Yeutter, "is an anathema to the Republican Party and to every American." One reporter cited Duke's stands on certain issues and said that he couldn't understand why the Republican Party wouldn't accept him. Said Yeutter: "That's because Duke has done a good job of conning you by his very skillful demagoguery." Yeutter acknowledged that Duke had embraced many positions of the Republican platform but added: "That doesn't make him a Republican.... We differ with him on his fundamental bigotry ... he is a man who is known for his anti-Semitic views, his bigoted views, and racist views. That's where we differ." Weren't there dark recession clouds overhead that threaten Bush's reelection? Yeutter squirmed a bit. Yes, the economy wasn't faring too well. But he said the recession would end "ultimately," and he thought that "ultimately" would come in a few months, before the elections of 1992. Asked if he were opposed to a tax cut, Yeutter responded "no." He favored "an economic growth package - but it has to be one that won't be greeted negatively in the financial markets." He said that such a package should contain a cut in the tax paid on capital gains. Then came tricky questions on what Democratic candidate the president would "prefer." Yeutter walked gingerly through that minefield, conceding that a candidate with "liberal leanings" like Mario Cuomo would be preferred over "someone like Bill Clinton" with views that appear more moderate. "Clearly we can draw distinctions better with the former than with the latter." After an hour, the breakfast session was over. Yeutter may have found it an ordeal, but he didn't show it. He had been almost painstakingly genial. Several reporters afterward commented on how carefully Yeutter watched his words, as if he were walking on eggs. That was my impression, too. It seemed to me it couldn't be much fun being a party chairman with someone looking over your shoulder all the time.

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