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Book Recalls Oval Office Altercation Kemp Lunged For Baker, Says Ex-Press Secretary

In the Oval Office, where dignity reigns, the secretary of housing lunged for the secretary of state. It fell to the national security adviser to prevent a Cabinet fistfight, former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says in a kiss-and-tell book.

Fitzwater, spokesman for Presidents Reagan and Bush, also says that three of the seven White House chiefs of staff under whom he worked broke into tears when told their services no longer were needed - powerful men incapable of accepting their fate with a stiff upper lip.

The tearful aides were Donald Regan, he wrote, who was dropped when he fell out of favor with first lady Nancy Reagan; John Sununu, whose days ended when the press reported he used government planes for personal travel; and Samuel Skinner, who was forced out in an effort to keep Bush’s re-election effort from going over a cliff.

But the eye-catching account in Fitzwater’s book, “Call the Briefing,” involved Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, each unable to contain his anger at the other.

Kemp, who could not keep from butting into foreign policy matters, was “nagging, nagging, nagging” Bush to alter a scripted foreign policy scenario and recognize the breakaway Soviet satellite of Lithuania, Fitzwater recounted.

Finally, Baker, the color rising in his face, screamed an epithet at Kemp and the enraged housing secretary bounded across the furniture and grabbed at Baker’s throat. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft stepped in between the two men to head off a fistfight.

Random House will publish the book this fall, but the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post got advance copies and ran stories.

Fitzwater, the only person to serve two presidents as press secretary, from 1982 through 1992, critiqued some members of the White House press corps.

He wrote that Lesley Stahl of CBS was “tough, unyielding and … seldom swayed by the power of an argument” and Chris Wallace and Andrea Mitchell of NBC were “Machiavellian in the lengths they would go to gain advantage over one another.” He expressed admiration for Maureen Dowd of The New York Times but not her colleague Andrew Rosenthal.

He said Terence Hunt, The Associated Press’ White House correspondent, was “an excellent reporter” who twice a year or so infuriated the press secretary by quoting a conversation overheard in the men’s room or something said in jest. He said that the press corps dean, Helen Thomas of United Press International, was unique in her ability to ask newsmaking questions. Fitzwater criticized AP’s Rita Beamish as a liberal, drawing an incredulous reaction from her bureau chief, Jonathan Wolman: “Rita is a straight-ahead reporter who is held in high regard on both sides of the political aisle.”

Fitzwater also wrote that Bush in his last year in office suffered more from an irregular heartbeat than was generally known. He said it was caused by changes in his medication for a thyroid problem, which left him sick and tired: “His body was a reluctant warrior.”

“The old zip was gone. And it was noticeable in the campaign,” Fitzwater said. “The old competitive juices that might have gotten the president into the 1992 campaign … seemed to have lost their edge.”

Former President Ford, along with some members of Bush’s own staff, urged Bush to dump Vice President Dan Quayle from his 1992 re-election ticket, Fitzwater wrote. He said Baker - back in the White House by then, trying to revive the campaign - along with campaign manager Robert Teeter secretly prepared a poll intended to convince Bush that Quayle was a drag to the ticket. Presidential son George W. Bush also was said to favor dropping Quayle.

But Fitzwater quoted Bush as saying, “I could never get away with taking Quayle off the ticket.”