Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III recently explored easing out a key deputy to White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, creating new tension between President Reagan's top assistants, according to administration officials.
Baker was reported to be "infuriated" when he found out this week that Meese had talked with former White House political director Lyn Nofziger about returning to take over the job of communications director David R. Gergen, who works for Baker.
Nofziger was said to be interested in the job on the condition that he be allowed to bypass Baker and report directly to Reagan, one official said. Meese privately made an "overture" to Nofziger recently but did not make an explicit job offer, the official said.
Although they have recently sought to portray an outward appearance of calm cooperation, Reagan's top aides and their respective staffs have often been at each others' throats over matters both large and inconsequential, with Meese considered more ideologically conservative and Baker more politically pragmatic. Reagan previously has let it be known that he values both Meese and Baker and would like them to work together.
Gergen has not announced plans to leave the White House. He spent a day last week at ABC News in New York and said later that he was not seeking a job with the network but observing how the evening news broadcast is assembled. Yesterday, Gergen refused comment. Baker, asked about the Meese contact with Nofziger, said only that it is "gossip."
Meese said through a spokesman that he had not talked about Gergen at his last meeting with Nofziger, a breakfast Jan. 17. But Meese was not available for direct comment, and the spokesman had "no idea" whether Meese had other contacts with Nofziger.
Baker, who returned from California with Reagan on Saturday, was described by one official as angry that Meese had talked with Nofziger, who, as White House political director, had worked for Baker. Since leaving the White House, Nofziger has angered Baker with attempts to set up an unauthorized 1984 reelection effort for Reagan.
Nofziger, now a Washington political consultant, was unavailable for comment yesterday.
An administration source said yesterday that Baker learned of the Meese approach to Nofziger from a two-paragraph item in a Sunday column written by syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.
The item referred to the "latest backstage White House power play to outflank chief of staff James Baker" and said Nofziger had been "made an offer" to return as Reagan's communications director "in time for the 1984 campaign."
The columnists said the "secret offer" came from both Meese and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark, "who are often allied against Baker," and that Nofziger "surprised insiders" when he suggested he might accept if he worked only for Reagan and had unlimited access to the president.
One official said yesterday Meese did not actually offer a job to Nofziger. It could not be learned whether Clark was involved in the discussions. He did not return telephone inquiries.
According to one official's account, Baker went into the Oval Office holding a copy of the column and asked Reagan to reaffirm his intent to keep Gergen. This official said the president agreed to and Baker subsequently confronted Meese.
Meese reportedly agreed to "back off," the official said.
Shaken by the Meese discussion, Gergen's office was scanning telephone logs of White House officials this week to determine who had talked with the syndicated columnists. Gergen routinely collects the phone logs of other White House officials, as part of his effort to control "leaks" to the press and stop "free-lance artists" who speak to reporters without his permission.
Gergen's job centers largely on publicizing the president's intended message as often as possible. But, like Baker, he has been the target of criticism from conservatives who do not like the way Reagan's message seems to stray from what they see as the president's basic principles.
Gergen also took the lead on the anti-leaks effort when Reagan complained that he was "up to my keister in leaks."
Recently, the offices of Gergen and deputy press secretary Larry Speakes, among others, have been the subject of a study by John Herrington, the new White House personnel director. Herrington is studying for Baker the operations and effectiveness of the communications, press and public liaison offices, and it is not clear whether Herrington's study is related to the latest episode.
Nofziger, who worked on Reagan's 1966 campaign for California governor and later served as his press secretary, has often come and gone from the Reagan camp.
He worked in the 1980 campaign, but left the White House after about a year. Those close to him say he would like to return to the West Wing, even though he has prospered on the lecture circuit and in his consulting business.
It could not be learned precisely how the talk between Meese and Nofziger came about, who initiated it and whether Meese seriously intended to get the communications office, or any other job, for Nofziger.
But it is clear that it would be difficult to win Baker's consent for such a move, even if Gergen's office were vacant. Nofziger provoked Baker's anger last year when he invited some Reagan political operatives to attend a meeting on a 1984 reelection campaign, saying he wanted it to be a Reagan-Bush campaign instead of a Bush-Reagan effort.
That was a slap at Baker, Bush's 1980 campaign manager. Agitated, Baker called and objected to Nofziger from Air Force One while Reagan was traveling in Latin America.
Late last year, after news reports of disagreements between Baker and Meese, both signaled their staffs to declare a truce and work together. They have gone to great lengths to show that they are not in conflict, and the president subsequently declared that the disarray was not on his staff, but among the press corps.