In late December, 1978, a few days after President Jimmy Carter stunned the world by announcing that he would establish ties with China's Communist government, he dispatched then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher on an extremely touchy mission to Taiwan.
Taiwan's Nationalist regime was facing the loss of its diplomatic relations and its mutual defense treaty with the United States. Shortly after Christopher's plane landed, his motorcade was pelted with eggs and debris. Windows were broken and Christopher suffered a scratch on his cheek.
"It was a rough ride, but he was very cool afterwards," Mark S. Pratt, the now-retired U.S. diplomat who was also in the motorcade, recalled Tuesday. "He did not become vindictive. He understood this was being done for domestic reasons. Even when some other American officials . . . were absolutely fulminating, Christopher kept his balance."
That incident was emblematic of Christopher. Throughout his career, American leaders, in the White House and elsewhere, have regularly given him tough jobs, those requiring a cool head and a sense of balance.
During the urban riots of the late 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson assigned Christopher, then deputy attorney general, to the blazing streets of Detroit, where he helped the President make the decision to call for military intervention by the 82nd Airborne. In the 1968 Democratic convention, Christopher was sent to Chicago, where he monitored what he later called "essentially a police riot" against antiwar demonstrators.
Carter chose him as his representative in Algiers to negotiate the release of American hostages from Iran in the tense, fateful last days of his Administration. Later, Carter described Christopher as "the best public servant I ever knew." And last year, Christopher headed the commission that investigated the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department after the beating of Rodney G. King.
In his earlier U.S. government jobs, Christopher was often the loyal aide and executor of other leaders' policies. As President-elect Bill Clinton's choice to be secretary of state, he may soon have the opportunity to become the architect of a new post-Cold War American foreign policy.
The relationship between Clinton and Christopher is believed to have become close only this year. One mutual friend was Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles lawyer who was close to both Clinton and his wife, Hillary.
Christopher emerged as a key figure in Clinton's presidential campaign when he was named to head a panel of advisers to help choose a running mate. The choice of Vice President-elect Al Gore was widely viewed as an important step in buttressing Clinton's chances.
"Of course, he was by my side for what was perhaps the best decision I have made during this campaign, the selection of Sen. Gore as my running mate," Clinton said Tuesday. "I have come to rely heavily on his judgment in a wide variety of areas, and I have come to know him as a friend I want nearby."
After the election, the President-elect named Christopher as his transition director.
Among his many admirers, Christopher also has a few detractors who wonder whether he has the vision for the job. These questions are strikingly similar to those raised about former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who--it is often said--was brilliant as a lawyer and negotiator but deficient as a strategist.
Christopher's most prominent critic is Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who during the late 1970s was regularly at odds with the State Department headed by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Christopher.
"Vance, and later Christopher . . . preferred to litigate issues endlessly, to shy away from the unavoidable ingredient of force in dealing with contemporary international realities and to have an excessive faith that all issues can be resolved by compromise," wrote Brzezinski in his memoir, "Power and Principle."
Christopher appeared to be moving to rebut such criticisms at Tuesday's press conference in Little Rock. "We are the inheritors of a new world . . ," he told reporters. "We need bold new thinking to guide us."
In recent days, some Asian diplomats privately have voiced a different complaint about Christopher, one that would be viewed as high praise in other quarters: They have said they fear he may be too supportive of human rights and democratic values, in a way that may lead to confrontation with China and other Asian nations.
These worries appear to be based in part on Christopher's record as a liberal Democrat, a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and as the one-time right-hand-man to Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark. The worries also are based on his service in Carter's State Department, where he is said to have been strongly supportive of human rights issues.
Christopher's modest, self-deprecating style reflects his upbringing on the Great Plains in the Depression. He was born in Scranton, N.D., a town of 300 where his father was the local bank cashier.
"I remember going around with my father to foreclosure sales--his bank would have to sell the belongings of people he had known all his life," Christopher, now 67, told The Times' in a 1987 interview. "I think that gave me a good deal of my sympathy to people and my liberal leanings. I live simply and cautiously and that goes back to the childhood days."
When he was 11, his father suffered a stroke after the bank nearly collapsed. Two years later, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Christopher lived in a Hollywood bungalow court, earned money delivering the Hollywood Citizen-News and made his way through Hollywood High School.
Christopher won a scholarship to Redlands University, then transferred to USC. After a stint in the Navy, he went to Stanford Law School, where he served in 1949 as president of the first Stanford Law Review and won a valued clerkship with Douglas after graduation.
It was his first of many experiences working for Washington's great men and it was one about which, characteristically, Christopher was extremely discreet.
In 1950, Christopher returned to Los Angeles to join O'Melveny & Myers, the law firm that he has rejoined after each of his tours in Washington and in which he eventually rose to be managing partner.
Christopher's first work with the State Department was in 1961, when he chaired the U.S. Delegation for International Textile Negotiations in Geneva and Tokyo. Six years later, Johnson appointed him deputy attorney general.
In addition to overseeing the Justice Department's work on the urban riots in Detroit and Washington, Christopher was sent to Los Angeles to supervise the federal investigation of the June, 1968, assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
In handling the urban riots, Christopher worked closely with Vance, then a senior Defense Department official. When President Carter appointed Vance as his secretary of state, Vance named Christopher as his deputy.
"He was truly my alter ego, and his decision on any issue was the equivalent of mine," Vance later wrote. Christopher played "a leading role" in many areas, such as human rights policy, ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and Central America, as well as the Iranian hostage crisis, he said.
Christopher was recruited in 1991 by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to direct the highly sensitive review of the city police force after the King beating. The assignment, dealing with allegations of police racism, brutality and the tenure of the powerful police chief, Daryl F. Gates, earned him generally high marks.
Bradley said Tuesday that Christopher's "extraordinary capabilities" led to recommendations that "not only changed the face of law enforcement for the City of Los Angeles, but for the nation as well."
The study that emerged after a 100-day inquiry painted a grim image of an agency where problem officers with a history of brutality complaints were not being reined in, where racist and sexist messages brazenly were transmitted on police computers and where a "siege mentality" had alienated officers from the diverse city they serve. It called for a major overhaul of officer oversight and training and the accountability of the police chief.
Its most difficult recommendation, in which Christopher played a pivotal role, was the call for Gates to step aside.