Adding another confusing chapter in the White House effort to find a new Republican Party chairman, administration officials told reporters yesterday that President Bush has selected Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter for the post, but the president would not confirm it.
White House sources said Bush had asked Yeutter, 60, to serve in the post when the two met Thursday in the Oval Office. Yeutter agreed yesterday after further discussions with Bush, sources said, and the White House had wanted to telephone party and elected officials before making a formal announcement.
Asked about Yeutter as he left the White House yesterday, Bush said, "He'd be very good, wouldn't he?" Asked again, Bush said, "You're pinning me down too much on that because what I had planned to do is if we had an announcement to make on that I would sally forth and announce it. . . . If Clayton Yeutter were asked to be chairman, he would be a superb chairman."
A Nebraska farmer and lawyer and former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Yeutter served as U.S. trade representative in the Reagan administration and has served as agriculture secretary since Bush took office.
He had let the White House know months ago he was interested in leaving the agriculture post and was being considered for other posts when the party chairmanship became available.
William J. Bennett, the administration's former drug policy director, was Bush's first choice for the job, after White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu quietly ran the first search for a successor to Lee Atwater, who is battling a brain tumor. When Bennett abruptly changed his mind for financial reasons, Sununu began a second search that resulted in a string of potential selections indicating to the White House they had no interest in the job.
Yeutter has virtually no political experience, although sources involved in the Committee to Re-elect the President, then-President Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign, said he chaired a national group, Farmers for Nixon.
White House officials said Fred Malek, a senior official in the Nixon administration who has advised Bush, strongly backed Yeutter. But they added that Yeutter's main backer was Sununu.
White House officials said the announcement is expected early next week.
White House lawyers yesterday were said to be looking at some questions related to what outside income Yeutter could earn and what activities he could engage in if he accepts the post. It was that issue that caused Bennett to withdraw, and Bush was said to be unwilling to announce his choice of Yeutter until, as one source put it, "all the legal i's were dotted and the t's crossed."