From their State Department perch six blocks west of the West Wing, the Baker team had scoffed and raged for two years about the clumsy attempts of Bush officials to deal with politics and domestic affairs. The foreign affairs "whiz kids," as they liked to think of themselves, could not always hide their contempt for what they saw as a slapstick, slapdash White House operation.
When the country turned inward after the Persian Gulf war, when Los Angeles burned, when Ross Perot tapped into voter disgust, James A. Baker 3d and his band of fortysome thing aides looked over at the White House in wonder. What they saw was President Bush and his advisers squandering record-high approval ratings through their failure to understand the anxiety of Americans in economic pain and to offer a convincing plan to solve their problems. Fixing the Mechanics
But now that they have commandeered the White House, members of the Baker SWAT team confide that they are coming to grips with the fact that it is not so easy to ride to the rescue. They are, after all, operating within the constraints of a Reagan-Bush legacy that has dismantled important levers of government, especially in the domestic agencies. They are also working with a President who had wasted political capital for four years by scorning the idea that he needed to communicate, or even develop, a coherent theme and long-range strategy for his Presidency.
Their initial steps have been largely mechanical: brisker, more focused daily White House meetings; more substantive Presidential speeches tied to specific initiatives and a fresh cordon of trusted aides to manage the President on the road. So Much to Do; So Little Time
This may be the first Administration in history that is scrambling for its first-100-days plan in its last 60 days before facing the voters. With Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas still leading in the polls and with more bad news in the latest economic figures, the Baker team quickly has to get beyond long-overdue, elementary improvements in organization to a fundamental recasting of the Bush persona and campaign.
One of the reasons George Bush is in trouble is that his image now is of wanting to be President more than of wanting to accomplish things as President. A key to Ronald Reagan's success was that he always managed to convey the impression that he would rather be back in California riding a horse but had to stay in Washington to enact his ideas. Now Mr. Baker and his aides are expected to come up instantly with the ideas that will justify Mr. Bush's urgent desire to stay in Washington.
Like students cramming the night before an exam, the Baker aides are closeted in their offices, steeped in paper, coffee and Diet Cokes, working late into the night to come up with campaign themes and attack lines, driving everyone at the campaign headquarters crazy by calling every few minutes to find out Bill Clinton's position on one thing or another. The group who knew a lot more about the inner workings of the Russian economy is frantically working out economic recovery ideas for America -- which they expect to unveil shortly.
Even as Janet G. Mullins, the new Bush campaign liaison, was still trying to figure out where the White House ladies' room was, and Margaret D. Tutwiler, the new White House communications director, was still asking officials down the hall, "Excuse me, I don't mean to be rude, but who are you and what do you do?" they were hit with Hurricane Andrew, the sour aftertaste of the Republican National Convention and the pungent reality of the mess they had inherited. Mood of Desperados
While he enjoys polishing his image as a wily court magician, Mr. Baker knows he will be lucky to get out this time with his cape and rabbits intact.
It is one more fascinating twist to the 35-year friendship and rivalry of the Tex-prep friends that, in some ways, the better Mr. Baker does, the worse Mr. Bush will look, because it will underscore the President's Zelig-like tendency to be as clever as his nearest adviser. "If Baker is the great pooh-bah and savior, it makes George Bush look weak, doesn't it?" noted Lyn Nofziger, the White House political director under President Reagan, who regards Mr. Baker as an overrated self-promoter who has put his own interests ahead of those of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush.
The mood of the Baker team is a mix of anger at having to move in at this late stage, terror at the prospect of being labeled failures and thrill at the thought of beating the odds. They have been swamped trying to simultaneously figure out everything from who runs the White House fax machines to who can be relied on to get things done in the government agencies.
When they were at the State Department, "We knew who you talk to, how you move things, who you can trust, if you want to establish a no-fly zone over southern Iraq," one Baker aide said privately, because they are all trying to keep low profiles. "But we had to learn about southern Florida. So you go ask people questions, but you don't know who really knows, so you don't know whose answers you can trust. In the State Department, you pull a lever and you have a pretty good idea what is going to happen on the other end, and if it doesn't happen you know just where to kick or jiggle."
Mr. Baker had made it clear over the years that he agreed with critics who charged that the autocratic former chief of staff, John H. Sununu, had surrounded himself with a second-rate staff. But the officials brought in by Mr. Sununu and those brought in by his successor, Samuel K. Skinner -- layers that curl outside Mr. Baker's inner circle like rings on a tree trunk -- seem sincerely relieved at the arrival of the C-Street cleanup crew, even though some were evicted from their coveted West Wing offices.
The only antidote to the ingrained Washington instincts for envy, turf-fighting and backstabbing, it would seem, is the fear of humiliating defeat. As one top Bush campaign official sees it: "At some point the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight focuses you on avoiding the noose. You can worry about the location of your cell later."
It is a measure of the chaos that Bush officials talk gratefully about how James Baker has stripped them of titles and power. They describe themselves as a sort of dysfunctional family craving an authority figure -- a role that the genial Mr. Bush did not want to play or even delegate.
Under Mr. Skinner, officials said, meetings meandered without a clear agenda or a sense of who was responsible for what. "There was no centralized authority or forward motion," said one top White House official. "If you wanted a decision overturned, all you needed to do was wait 30 minutes or call another meeting. Now people play the roles they are designed to play." Genius, in Comparison
It has not gone unnoticed that Richard G. Darman, the budget director, does not try to use his sharp elbows on Mr. Baker, his former boss in the Reagan White House, and instead goes along tamely. Mr. Baker has also reclaimed White House control over the campaign schedule of Vice President Dan Quayle, a potential rival for the 1996 nomination should both men's careers survive this election.
Although there have been plenty of "White House in disarray" headlines over the past few years, the extent of drift is vividly underlined by the way veteran White House officials rave about some of the basic administrative changes instituted by Mr. Baker. What would look like standard operating procedure is hailed as another example of Mr. Baker's administrative "genius."
For instance, one senior Bush aide gushed over the way Mr. Baker has made sure that the President's speeches "deal with real issues now," have only one theme and are no longer written on Air Force One at the last minute. Speech writers no longer have to come on each trip to cut and paste because speeches are prepared in advance under the direction of Robert B. Zoellick, the brainy deputy chief of staff who makes even the buttoned-down Mr. Baker look like a blithe spirit.
Other proferred examples of Mr. Baker's skill: If someone rambles off the subject at a meeting, the new chief of staff steers him back to the subject at hand, and each meeting is expected to produce solutions. Taming the Meetings
Mr. Baker and his aides know that this is not rocket science, and they privately reflect some resentment about having to leave the State Department to inject the sort of order and substance that Mr. Bush might easily have had all along.
Before he meets with the President at 8 A.M., Mr. Baker holds a 7:30 meeting, which is attended by the core group that has moved from State -- Mr. Zoellick and his equally well-organized colleagues, Miss Tutwiler, Ms. Mullins and Dennis Ross, the policy planning chief -- as well as Mr. Darman; Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman; Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, and the downsized campaign directors, Frederic V. Malek and Robert M. Teeter. The same group meets at 6 P.M. to see where things stand.
"We had one meeting that lasted 45 minutes," an aide said. "I came out and said to Scowcroft: 'God, that took a long time. Why did it have to take that long?' And he said: "Long? We would have spent four hours on that before.' " Next, the Vision Thing
Once again, Mr. Baker is directing the campaign from Washington and giving the often unfocused Mr. Bush clear guidance by surrounding him with a trio of aides on the campaign plane: Mr. Fitzwater, who deals with the press; David Q. Bates, a former Bush aide and tennis partner who has returned to keep track of local politics and make certain that Mr. Bush shakes all the right hands and knows the mayor from the governor, and Phillip D. Brady, who makes certain the President stays abreast of his daily duties as chief executive.
But everyone agrees that discipline will only go so far; the content of the President's message must be improved.
Baker aides say privately that, while the convention may have helped consolidate the Republican base, it was in many ways "a wasted opportunity." Mr. Clinton went into the Democratic convention with a major issue hanging over his head -- the "character question." He tried to resolve it as best he could and reaped the benefits in the polls.
Mr. Bush went into his convention with a major issue hanging over his head -- the need to convey that he had an economic plan to deal with restructuring the military industry, jobs, competitiveness, productivity. He did not address it and did not get the kick in the polls.
The Baker aides, insisting that "we get it," say they are drawing up a trellis of speeches, appearances, sound bites and Government initiatives intended to persuade a skeptical public that Mr. Bush actually has a domestic policy. A One-Two-Three Punch
The President's appearances last Wednesday, one official said, previewed a blueprint for the new three-pronged approach: Speech. Action. Attack.
The President met with farmers in South Dakota and aircraft workers in Texas, and the theme of his remarks was "economic security." The related concrete action was his announcement of disaster relief and $1 billion in export assistance for wheat farmers, as well as the sale of 150 F-16's to Taiwan that would provide jobs for 6,000 Texas aircraft workers. The companion attack on Mr. Clinton charged that he had a wishy-washy position on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But even some of the most devoted Administration advocates wonder whether it is too late for Mr. Bush to transform himself into the Domestic President.
"The more they come up with now, the more people will ask, 'Where were you before?' " said one old friend of Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker.
Mr. Baker, who spent a generous portion of his time as Mr. Reagan's chief of staff schmoozing with the press, has refused so far to see any reporters since moving to the White House. Disappointed at having to give up his statesman's mantle, disdainful of his "handler" moniker, knowing that this is going to be an ugly race, Mr. Baker is keeping his head down.
The President, by contrast, has a new bounce in his step. As one aide notes, "He likes the new sense of stability."