President-elect George Bush wasted no time in announcing this week who will be secretary of state in his administration. The fact that it is James A. Baker III is no surprise to anybody. Yet it's hard to imagine a better choice.
Baker has been manager of the Bush campaign, secretary of the treasury, White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, and is a close personal friend of Bush with ties going back more than 20 years.But it is not merely personal rapport, trust, and respect that brings the 58-year-old Baker to the job as chief foreign policy adviser and spokesman. Even Baker critics - and there are not many - concede that he is bright, pragmatic, effective, candid, and has the ability to get along with Congress.
Ideology is not Baker's chief approach to problems. He tends to be moderate and has a talent for getting things done, for smoothing over rough spots, and working with those who hold differing views. All of this will stand him in good stead as secretary of state.
One result of Baker as secretary of state is likely to be a strong bipartisanship approach to foreign policy, which will be crucial since the administration is Republican and Congress is controlled by the Democrats.
Such a consensus approach will be welcomed by America's friends and allies and make it easier for them to know how to respond to what the U.S. is saying and doing.
While the country could benefit from closer cooperation between Congress and the White House on foreign policy issues, the State Department, under the solid leadership of Secretary of State George Shultz, is already one of the strongest and most effective parts of the Reagan administration. Baker will have very big shoes to fill.
Shultz, while not flashy, has been a tireless worker, quietly putting together real achievements and earning the respect of foreign diplomats the world over. He is the longest-serving member of the president's Cabinet and can be credited with much of the optimistic outlook in foreign affairs.
Shultz was a major architect of the treaty eliminating all medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. In pushing for help to Afghan rebels, Angolan rebels, and in sending U.S. ships to the Persian Gulf, he had his critics, yet those policies proved successful.
The secretary of state does not give up easily and has seen many of his tough policies bear fruit. That kind of perseverance has too often been lacking in past U.S. positions. There is often an American tendency to abandon the issue if it doesn't get resolved in two or three years.
In inheriting this legacy from Shultz, Baker has a solid foundation on which to build. The U.S. is fortunate to have an outstanding secretary of state followed by another who appears equally skillful.