President Reagan, passing over a number of candidates who were campaigning for the job, yesterday named C. William Verity Jr., a leading industrialist, as his handpicked choice to succeed Malcolm Baldrige as secretary of commerce.
Senior White House officials said Reagan chose Verity despite hard lobbying by a number of other contenders -- two of them in the Commerce Department -- because of the strong positive impression the former steel executive left with the president after serving as head of a White House task force on private initiatives early in the administration.
"The president remembered him and was very positively impressed by him," said a White House official. "He's comfortable with him personally and philosophically, and he thinks he has backbone."
Verity, who retired in 1982 as chairman of Armco Inc., the nation's sixth largest steel company, emerged as the leading candidate for the Commerce job Thursday after White House aides presented Reagan with their list of contenders. One senior official said Verity "wasn't even on the list" brought to the president.
"I have a name I'd like to put on the list," a senior aide present at the meeting quoted Reagan as saying. White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and first lady Nancy Reagan were reported to also have supported Verity.
Verity, a former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has personal ties with influential lawmakers and members of the administration. He goes hunting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and was campaign chairman when Clarence J. Brown, now acting commerce secretary, ran for governor of Ohio. Brown, No. 2 in the department under Baldrige, was one of those actively campaigning for the secretary's job, along with Commerce Undersecretary Bruce Smart Jr.
U.S. Ambassador to France Joe M. Rodgers and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander also were leading contenders, as were former senator James T. Broyhill (R-N.C.) and former representative Edwin V.W. Zschau (R-Calif.).
In naming Verity, Reagan took the unusual step for a mid-level Cabinet appointment of going to the White House press room with Verity at his side to announce his intention to nominate the 70-year-old retired steel company executive. Aides noted that the president also was more heavily involved than usual in the selection process, an indication White House officials said demonstrates that Reagan now is "more engaged" in the workings of his administration.
Reagan, referring to Baldrige's July 25 death in a California rodeo-practice accident, said, "Mac's boots will be hard to fill." Emphasizing the importance that the trade issue plays in the Commerce Department job, Reagan said that Verity, like Baldrige, "understands the importance of expanding international markets, maintaining our competitiveness and enhancing our export capability."
"I know he shares my commitment to free and fair trade and supports our efforts to prevent any move toward protectionism that would bring immediate retaliation and reverse the recent progress we've made in correcting the trade imbalance," Reagan continued.
Verity, in a short statement, said he has been "impressed" during the last 6 1/2 years by a "redirection of effort toward making this country more competitive."
In an apparent effort to forestall criticism by conservatives because of Verity's frequently stated support for increased trade with the Soviet Union, Reagan stated that Reagan "was very positively impressed."
-- a White House official
Verity is in favor of "ongoing efforts to keep vital technology from falling into the hands of our adversaries."
Conservatives within the administration brought their complaints over Verity's support of increased trade with the Soviets to the president, senior administration officials reported, but Reagan brushed them aside. Senior officials said Verity made a point of assuring the president that he opposes the transfer of sensitive technology to Soviet-bloc nations.
As co-chairman of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council, set up in 1973 during the height of detente, Verity often spoke in favor of increased trade between the two countries and against export embargoes to achieve foreign policy goals. He said embargoes hurt American overseas sales while the Soviets made purchases elsewhere, often from U.S. allies who refused to go along with trade restrictions.
But associates of Verity emphasized yesterday that the attacks on trade embargoes often were accompanied by strong, less frequently quoted statements in favor of continued curbs on the shipment of high technology to the Soviet bloc.
Nonetheless, it appeared yesterday that some conservatives will try to attack Verity on his record favoring increased trade with the Soviet Union. There were signs that conservative groups have begun collecting information on Verity's position for possible use when he comes before the Senate Commerce Committee after Labor Day for his confirmation hearing.
Verity appeared sensitive to the importance of the Soviet trade issue, which was the subject of the only question reporters shot at him during his brief appearance in the press room. He avoided answering it, saying it "would be very unwise" to take specific questions from the press until after he is confirmed.