He Was First Considered for Agriculture Post in 1980 : Appointment Fulfills Yeutter Ambition

Times Staff Writer

Clayton K. Yeutter’s friends jokingly argue whether it really is true that he has wanted to be secretary of agriculture ever since he learned to walk. “That’s nonsense!” one insists, with a smirk. “I don’t think he was even aware then that there was an opening.”

The ebullient former Nebraska farmer almost got the post in late 1980 as part of President Reagan’s first round of Cabinet appointments, but instead wound up with a consolation prize--an appointment as U.S. trade representative in mid-1985.

Now, the 58-year-old Yeutter finally will achieve his longtime ambition. But ironically, the fact that the offer from President-elect George Bush came so late may make Yeutter one of the most reluctant agriculture secretaries in history.

After 3 1/2 years in the Reagan Administration, Yeutter (it rhymes with “fighter”) had wanted badly to return to the private sector and had several lucrative offers from agribusiness and Wall Street firms.


Coaxed to Remain

Bush had to coax him to remain. In the end, for all Yeutter’s seven-figure opportunities, his personal style and ambitions still strongly reflect a simple rural background--and a passion for scholarship and detail.

“They may have sent Clayton Yeutter out of the country a lot in the past three years,” says one longtime Yeutter-watcher here, “but they haven’t taken the country out of Clayton.”

Although there are no chickens to feed in bureaucratic Washington, the indefatigable Yeutter regularly rises at 5 a.m. to start his workday before 7 each morning. A bundle of energy, he is perpetually cheerful, even when his subordinates are worn out and grouchy.


He also is undeniably brainy. A voracious reader and letter writer, who regularly dazzles onlookers with his near-photographic memory, Yeutter once personally introduced each of 50 guests on the presidential yacht Sequoia, giving the full name and a short biography of each--including spouses--without once referring to a 3x5-card.

Yeutter may be virtually the only man whom President-elect Bush could have chosen for the post without raising questions about whether he was fully qualified.

‘Most Energetic Guy’

“He’s the most energetic guy I’ve ever encountered,” says Alan Woods, a Missourian who once was Yeutter’s deputy and is now administrator of the Agency for International Development.


Yeutter, who holds both a law degree and a doctorate in agricultural economics, spent five years in the Agriculture Department, first as administrator of USDA’s Consumer and Marketing Service and later in two assistant secretary’s posts. And his stint as U.S. trade representative was his second in that agency as well. In the mid-1970s, he had served as deputy to Frederick B. Dent, trade representative during the Administration of Gerald R. Ford.

At the same time, he has maintained strong ties to his rural background. He and his wife, Jeanne, who have four grown children, have a 2,500-acre “corn-and-cow” farm near his hometown of Eustis, Neb., although he now rents it out.

The new secretary’s platter will be overflowing with a veritable surplus of difficult farm issues--negotiations with other countries to reduce global agricultural subsidies and trade barriers; preparations for the 1989 seven-nation economic summit, at which agriculture will be a major issue; and drafting of the 1990 farm bill, which begins in earnest late next spring.

Bush hinted at a press conference Wednesday that he turned to Yeutter largely because Washington will need an experienced negotiator in its quest to overhaul global agricultural policies. Domestic farm issues over the next four years will depend largely on what the United States can accomplish on the international front and Yeutter’s own successor in the trade representative’s job, former Housing Secretary Carla Anderson Hills, is unschooled in agriculture.


Will Send Message

Yeutter has made a name as an able, but tough negotiator who is not afraid to face opponents down. The appointment “will send a significant message to our trading partners abroad,” Bush said Wednesday.

One of Yeutter’s biggest disappointments as U.S. trade representative came at a meeting of the world’s trade ministers in Montreal last week, just before his 58th birthday, when he failed to win agreement from the Europeans on a pact to cut global farm subsidies.

Next year, Yeutter will get another chance to see his strategy through--this time as secretary of agriculture, where he will share in the continuing negotiating process.


“He and Mrs. Hills are going to have their ingenuity tested severely,” says Michael B. Smith, another former Yeutter deputy.

Stubborn resolve, though, is his long suit--witness his allegiance to his home state University of Nebraska football team. “When Nebraska has lost on Saturday, you don’t want to come in Monday with a new proposal,” a former assistant says.