When William G. Walker was nominated earlier this year as the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, the former UCLA art student asked several old art-school friends in Southern California to lend him some of their paintings to decorate his embassy.
"They wouldn't do it," Walker said with an air of amazement. "They seemed to think I was going down there with a secret mandate from the President to kill people."
Walker, 53, embodies many of the paradoxes of U.S. policy in Central America: a moderate Democrat and a longtime advocate of human rights, he has been scorned by both El Salvador's authoritarian right and Marxist left.
Even before he arrived in the war-torn country this month, Walker, a career Foreign Service officer, was under fire from one of El Salvador's conservative newspapers for his "liberal and interventionist ideas" and his support of land reform. At the same time, the Marxist rebels' radio station offered a sarcastic greeting: "We toss him a little hand grenade . . . and wish him a successful stay--if he lives."
Yet in Washington, where Central America policy is almost as passionate as in El Salvador, the unassuming, wisecracking Walker has acquired an unusual degree of support from conservatives and liberals alike.
"Bill is a straight shooter," said Deborah DeMoss, an aide to archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "Some of my friends in the Salvadoran right are extremely leery of him, but I've gone to work trying to straighten them out."
"He's a swell guy," said Holly Burkhalter of the human rights group Americas Watch, from the other end of the spectrum. "He approaches the job with a lot of good will and good intentions. . . . He has pledged to put human rights very high on his agenda."
In El Salvador, Walker clearly needs all the good will he can get. The country is in its eighth year of civil war, with no end in sight. Death squad murders are on the rise again. The economy is stagnant. And the fragile political system is approaching a presidential election in which the rightist Arena party, which includes many former death squad supporters, appears almost certain to wrest power from the centrist, U.S.-backed Christian Democrats.
Massive Aid to Army
The Reagan Administration's answer--supported, after initial resistance, by most Democrats in Congress--has been to supply massive aid to the Salvadoran army in its war against the rebels while urging the government to improve its performance on human rights.
"Neither my political nor my moral conscience bothers me one whit about pursuing what this Administration is doing--helping the (political) center and consolidating democracy at the expense of the extremes on both sides," Walker said in a recent interview.
That policy will be tested severely if Arena wins the presidential election next March. The party includes extreme rightists who are openly hostile to U.S. concerns about human rights--among them Roberto D'Aubuisson, a former military intelligence officer whom U.S. officials have linked not only to death squads but also to a 1984 plot to kill then-U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering.
"Let's see how it behaves in office," Walker said of Arena. "If it starts doing outrageous things and turning back from reforms, then you react to that. But you don't announce ahead of an election that you're going to cut the government off if Arena wins."
As a signal of his openness to the Salvadoran right, Walker's first action after he presented his credentials to President Jose Napoleon Duarte was a meeting with Arena's candidate, Alfredo Cristiani.
At the same time, Walker has publicly declared his willingness to deal with the leaders of the Salvadoran rebels' political front, Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora. He met the two leftists on his first tour of duty in El Salvador in the mid-1970s. Then, as the Embassy political counselor, he angered the country's right wing by advocating land reform and pushing for human rights.
Walker, a gangling, rumpled man with the look of an aging graduate student, has never quite cut the conventional figure of a pinstriped diplomat.
Born in New Jersey, Walker grew up in Santa Monica. He studied art at UCLA and won a degree in architecture at USC, but then discovered that California was oversupplied with architects and went to live in Spain for a year. That experience--and his acquaintance with a U.S. consul in Valencia--persuaded Walker to join the Foreign Service.
As the Central America deputy of conservative Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams during the last two years, Walker has stepped adroitly through a mine field of foreign-policy disasters. He handled the State Department's work on Nicaragua when National Security Council aide Oliver L. North was at the height of his power, yet walked away from the Iran-Contra scandal unscathed.
After that, Walker took on the task of urging Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega to relinquish power--until last April, when an enraged Noriega banished him from his office. "Nicest thing he ever did for me," said Walker, who thus escaped much of the controversy that engulfed the Administration a few weeks later.
And after weeks of discussion, his old friends in Los Angeles relented and put together a collection of contemporary Southern California art that will grace the Embassy in San Salvador.
"Bill has somehow Teflonned his way through," said Burkhalter of Americas Watch. "But it's going to take more than just a skillful ambassador to fix things in El Salvador. . . . The country tends to be a black hole into which people of good will just disappear."