A "First Friend" with Unusual Clout

Commerce could get tough on trade with Don Evans in charge

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans has two jobs in Washington. The official one comes with a government limo, a spacious paneled office, a tropical fish tank, and a $3 billion budget. The second is a round-the-clock role as First Friend. So while vacationing in Colorado in mid-March, Evans wasn't surprised to get a call from the White House. A crisis? Hardly. President Bush had simply learned that his personal secretary and Evans' secretary were roommates and decided to call his pal, "Evvie," for a chat.

Evans and Bush aren't just close--they're soul mates joined by the Midland (Tex.) frontier ethos. Their ties go back nearly three decades, to the duo's oil wildcatting days. Although Bush made the big move to the White House, "I can pick up the telephone and call him and he can call me," Evans says.

That easy intimacy makes Evans, 54, potentially one of the most powerful Commerce chiefs in many years. As Bush's campaign chairman, he raised a record-breaking $100 million for his pal, a job that put the Texan on a first-name basis with many corporate chieftains. But in his first major interview, the Commerce Secretary insists that he's leaving the world of political fund-raising behind. His new concerns: helping to sell the big Bush tax cut, battling unfair trade practices abroad aimed at industries such as steel and aerospace, and boosting the government's long-range research efforts.

BATTLING BARRIERS. Although Evans is a reserved man who comes across as the essence of politeness, he's downright hawkish when it comes to battling trade barriers. "Our [trade] focus has got to be on fundamental fair play," he insists. "Open competition and fair play were part of the spirit of Midland." Such talk is likely to win Evans friends among many in Congress who have been critical of the Commerce Dept.'s lax enforcement of previous trade agreements and rulings.

Evans' selection as Bush's Commerce chief is eerily reminiscent of the first Bush Administration. The elder Bush picked Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., his best friend, campaign chairman, and a fellow Texas oilman, to head the department. With his White House connections, Mosbacher seemed destined to be a major policy player. But he spent much of his time battling White House Chief of Staff John Sununu over philosophical differences on industrial policy. Mosbacher's political well ran dry after he publicly proposed spending $1 billion in federal funds to develop a high-definition television industry.

Those who know Evans say he's not likely to meet the same fate. They note that the Secretary, for example, has ordered a review of the Commerce Dept.'s Advanced Technology Program--a research initiative begun during the previous Bush Administration--to purge it of any remnants of industry subsidization. The goal is to focus on basic research and shift more work to universities and away from favored companies. "We're just going to have to redefine the role that government plays in research," Evans says.

AVOIDING CONFLICT. In fact, shifting basic research to universities is a natural for Evans, who received his BA in engineering from the University of Texas and became chairman of its board of regents after then-Governor Bush appointed him in 1995.

One pitfall Evans must avoid is blurring the line between campaign fund-raising and Commerce's efforts at promoting exports. Like a former Secretary before him--President Clinton's first pick, Ron Brown--Evans will be handling export issues involving many of the companies whose CEOs kicked in cash for Bush's campaign. When Brown died in a 1996 plane crash, he was facing allegations that he had traded seats on trade-promotion trips for contributions. All probes of Brown ended with his death, but successor William M. Daley was forced to turn over the process of choosing CEOs for the trade outings to the Commerce Dept.'s career staff. Evans vows to continue Daley's efforts to insulate Commerce decision-making from political giving.

That isn't Daley's only legacy. After Daley was picked to head former Vice-President Al Gore's campaign in June, 2000, Evans called Daley to introduce himself. Despite a sometimes acrimonious campaign, a friendship developed between the earthy Chicago pol and the deeply religious Texas oilman. When Evans was contemplating a job in the Administration, Daley warned: "Don't go near the White House; you can be close to the President without being in the same building." Evans took the advice and the post at Commerce. He reckons that if he ever needs to reach Bush, his friend is just a phone call away.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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