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National Security Adviser John Poindexter Shines Brightest When Crises Light Up the Globe

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

The first news that American correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and his wife, Ruth, were airborne out of Moscow touched off the usual press scramble for facts and comments. Secretary of State George Shultz, who had hammered out the details of Daniloff's release in marathon sessions with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, was grilled by reporters in Washington; President Reagan was peppered with questions in Kansas City. Daniloff's employer, Mort Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News & World Report, was interviewed, as were Daniloff's daughter and the assistant dean of his son's prep school.

One person not heard from in all the commotion was the man who had coordinated the Reagan Administration's efforts throughout the monthlong superpower poker game, speaking with the Secretary of State by phone up to eight times a day. His contribution to the sweeping Daniloff deal, which also led to the expulsion of accused Soviet spy Gennadi Zakharov, the future release of Russian dissidents and this week's planned Iceland mini-summit, was not mentioned. Instead, National Security Adviser Adm. John Poindexter, 50, once again demonstrated his ability to duck the limelight so completely that the frustrated Washington press corps refers to his rare public appearances as "Poindexter sightings."

Such self-effacement is not an attribute normally associated with the National Security Adviser, who is supposed to refine policy options for the President. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski became international celebrities in the post. Poindexter's immediate predecessor, Robert McFarlane, resigned amid criticism that he was too chummy with reporters—an occupational hazard also known as "getting too Zbig for your britches."

It was partly because of McFarlane's high profile that Poindexter, his star behind-the-scenes action officer, seemed such an appealing replacement. But Poindexter had also earned a reputation as a "good man in a crisis," notably during the 1985 Achille Lauro incident, when he planned and supervised the bold midair interception of the plane carrying the hijackers to safety. Walking into the morning NSC briefing the next day, Reagan acknowledged the quiet NSC aide and said, "I salute the Admiral."

Less than two months later, McFarlane was out and Poindexter was in—over his head, by some accounts. There was, for example, the flap over an Administration decision to stop honoring the unratified SALT II Treaty. By refusing to brief reporters or, it seems, to adequately prepare the President to do so, Poindexter ensured a hostile public reception for the move, and the slighted press was quick to judge him not up to the job.

Clearly, though, the job has varied with the man. Both Kissinger and Brzezinski were the oreticians intent on framing policy, not just elucidating it. Poindexter lacks the academic background for that task. A career Navy man who was plucked off the flag officers' fast track in 1981 to become an NSC aide, he has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, not in politics or history. Yet he has proved to be extremely effective in the NSC job by at least one important measure: Backbiting within the Administration has subsided since he took office in January, and policy-making has proceeded more smoothly. It also has proceeded according to his own hard-line views ("Diplomacy without power is just talk," says Poindexter). That has led to criticism—even by the local Episcopal bishop, the Right Rev. John Walker, who wrote to protest Poindexter's stand on arms control this past summer. The letter was hard to ignore because Poindexter's wife had just begun pastoral duties in Walker's diocese.

Linda Poindexter, 49, who, like John, grew up in Indiana, married him two days after his 1958 graduation from Annapolis (he is one of only about a half-dozen military men this century to graduate both as first in his class and brigade commander) and devoted 20 years to raising their five sons, now 15 to 26. But when the boys started to leave home—two of them for Navy careers—she began studying for the ministry. She was ordained as a deacon last spring and found work in a parish near their Maryland home.

Her church has been sharply critical of positions her husband helped to craft on SALT II, Star Wars, contra aid and, most recently, sanctions against South Africa. Linda is caught in the middle, and though she doesn't come by it naturally ("On personality tests, we're complete opposites," she says), she, like her husband, now cultivates a certain reticence. Still, Linda insists that the only true points of contention between them concern means, not ends. "I don't question his motives," she says. And she sees no particular irony in the church-issued poster that graces John Poindexter's home office—a tidy cubicle off the front hall of their five-bedroom suburban house that on Sunday afternoons becomes the command post for his hang-tough diplomacy. The poster reads, "Blessed are the Peacemakers." "John considers himself a peacemaker," says Linda. "I think of him that way too."

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