Bush Asks Baker to Quit as Secretary of State, return to White House
WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush today announced that James A. Baker III is resigning as secretary of state to serve as White House chief of staff. The shakeup was designed to reinvigorate Bush’s presidency and his troubled re-election campaign.
Baker took a cadre of top aides with him to the White House, and some Democrats asked if it made sense to instigate such a significant change at a time of international crisis and opportunity.
Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, a widely respected career diplomat and protege of Henry Kissinger, will serve as acting secretary of state, Bush said.
Baker’s move was widely expected, and almost inevitable as Bush continued to suffer in the polls. The chief surprise was the departure of chief of staff Sam Skinner to become general chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Bush made the announcements in an austere fashion that featured none of the principals.
Bush said he wanted Baker’s ″counsel and assistance as I seek a mandate″ for a second term. He said of his friend of 35 years, ″He’s the sort of man you want on your team.″
The move came as Republicans gathered in Houston for next week’s party nominating convention - and as a new poll showed Bush trailing Democrat Bill Clinton by 60 percent to 34 percent.
GOP figures expressed satisfaction. ″I think it’s smart, not desperate,″ said Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. ″All of us are delighted.″
The Democrats praised Baker but criticized the job switch.
″I think it’s a sign of extraordinary political panic″ to have Baker resign ″to concentrate on purely political activities,″ said vice presidential candidate Al Gore. He said of Baker: ″I think he’s very talented. I think his talents would be better put to use as secretary of state in continuing the Mideast peace talks.″
Baker later said in a State Department speech that it was ″one of the most difficult decisions of my life.″ He choked up briefly at the end.
″Of course I have some regrets,″ he said, noting considerable achievements in foreign affairs during a ″whirlwind of history″ that began in 1989 with an end to the civil war and leftist rule in Nicaragua and later saw the creation of an anti-Iraq coalition and the breakup of the Soviet empire.
The job changes take effect Aug. 23, after the Republican convention.
″The Bush campaign obviously requires major surgery and they’ve brought in a good surgeon,″ said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. ″It’s the campaign’s gain but the country’s loss.″
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the State Department would be ″in very capable hands″ under Eagleburger. He said that Bush did not intend to nominate anyone to replace Baker but would allow Eagleburger to serve until after the election.
Fitzwater said Baker would have broad powers, both over the White House staff and over the re-election campaign.
Fitzwater said that Skinner would be a close adviser to the president on poltical matters, serving in much the same capacity as former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, who was general chairman of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. Rich Bond remains in charge at the RNC as chairman.
Richard Lugar of Indiana, No. 2 Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush will be ″well-served close at hand by Jim Baker, who not only will bring his foreign policy expertise into the decisionmaking but correlation with the domestic economy as well. That’s a bridge the president and the campaign have to make.″
Clinton, on Wednesday, said of the pending new job for Baker:
″He is a talented man, Jim Baker. He’s done some good things. My only concern now is with the continuity of American foreign policy,″ Clinton said.
In making his announcement, Bush said: ″I have asked Secretary Baker to resign as Secretary of State to join me as chief of staff and senior counselor to the president effective August 23. He will help me build on what we have started by developing an integrated second term program of doemstic, economic, and foreign policies.″
Fitzwater said that Bob Teeter would continue to run the president’s re- election ″under the direction″ of Bush and Baker.
Baker is bringing with him the heart of his State Department team, including Margaret Tutwiler, his spokesman and political adviser; Robert B. Zoellick, his counselor and policy formulator whose speciality is in economics; Dennis Ross, a senior foreign policy adviser with expertise in Middle Eastern and Soviet policy; and Janet Mullins, the chief of his congressional operation.
Zoellick will become deputy chief of staff, Ross will head policy planning and Mullins will be assistant for political affairs. Tutwiler will serve as assistant to the president for communications, a job now held by Fitzwater.
Fitzwater said he would continue on as press secretary but was gladly relinquishing the other part of his job to Tutwiler.
Bush said Skinner, who became chief of staff nine months ago, had encouraged him to make the change. Skinner had joined the White House as Bush’s ratings in the polls were plummenting and the country was mired in recession, and he was unable to find a successful formula to pull Bush out of his slide.
Skinner is a former Chicago prosecutor and transportation secretary who only came on the job last winter to succeed John Sununu.
Baker, 62, is one of Bush’s best friends, dating back to the early 1960s in Houston, when Bush was an oilman and Baker a lawyer. Baker was involved in the presidential campaigns of Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush and also served as Treasury secretary in the Reagan administration.
It was not clear exactly how much of the campaign Baker could run out of the White House. A November 27, 1991, memo by White House counsel Boyden Gray, obtained by The Associated Press, told White House staffers they should refrain from involvement in political activities.
″The simplest rule to follow ... is the common-sense instruction that anything that is obviously campaign-related should not be done here, whether or not one could ‘legally’ justify doing it here,″ Gray wrote.
Initially, GOP sources said they thought Baker might serve in a new post as White House counsellor and that Skinner would stay on as chief of staff. But Wednesday, administration and campaign officials said it looked more and more like Skinner was on his way out.
″It sounds like he quit,″ said one party official.
″Maybe he got his Irish up,″ Rich Bond speculated Wednesday night. ″He might not have wanted to be layered.″