The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III

James Baker had a life that worked. Success leaves clues. Baker valued family, relationships, community, religion, preparation, organization, and care. He played by the rules.

Here are some choice selections from this new book:

* Voting against Trump should have been an easy call for Baker. Trump, after all, was “a guy who’s his own worst enemy,” as Baker reminded us. “He can’t keep his mouth shut.” But Baker also was not quite ready to walk away from the party to which he had devoted so many years. He knew what it felt like when political power shifted and he knew that it was much better to be on the winning side. He had fought against the Reagan Revolution inside the Republican Party on behalf of Gerald Ford and George Bush, then became the revolution’s most capable executor as Reagan’s White House chief of staff. As Bush’s secretary of state, he had watched the unraveling of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe, another revolution that Baker did not start but figured out how to channel. The lesson he had taken from these events was simple and it was clear: When the tectonic plates of history move, move with them.

When it came to Trump and the nationalist-populist backlash that he represented, however, Baker just could not decide. It was only days before the election, and he went back and forth. At the end of our long conversation, after touching on Middle East peacemaking and the inner machinations of the Bush White House and the bipartisan prayer group he used to attend on Capitol Hill, we circled back to the subject at hand.

Could Jim Baker, the very definition of the establishment, really vote for Donald Trump?

* DELEGATE HUNTER, campaign manager, White House chief of staff, treasury secretary, and secretary of state, James Addison Baker III played a leading role in some of the most critical junctures in modern American history. For a quarter century, every Republican president relied on Baker to manage his campaign, his White House, his world. Baker brought them to power or helped them stay there, then steered them through the momentous events that followed. He was Washington’s indispensable man.

Any chronicle of the modern presidency would find Baker at the heart of virtually every chapter, for his was an unmatched case study in the acquisition, exercise, and preservation of power in late-twentieth-century America and into the first decade of the twenty-first. He was the campaign operative who secured the Republican nomination for Gerald Ford against a relentless challenge from the right by Ronald Reagan in 1976, then four years later managed George Bush’s first presidential campaign, which proved successful enough to earn Bush the vice presidency and Baker a spot by the new president’s side. He set up and ran Reagan’s White House as chief of staff for four years, securing many of the achievements that shaped the legacy of the fortieth president. In Reagan’s second term, with nothing more than an undergraduate course in economics, he took over as secretary of the treasury and rewrote the American tax code from top to bottom in collaboration with leading Democrats. He returned to the campaign trail in 1988 to win the presidency for Bush in a harshly negative election that foreshadowed some of the political nastiness of races to come, then switched back into statesman mode as America’s top diplomat, from which perch he effectively managed the most tumultuous period in international politics since World War II.

Over the following few years, as Washington presided over the end of the Cold War, Baker shaped a new American approach to a reordered world. Through it all, he was the archetype of a style of American politics and governance that today seems lost, an approach focused on compromise over confrontation, deal-making over disagreement and pragmatism over purity. He negotiated with Democrats at home and Soviets abroad, assembled the coalition that won the Gulf War and brokered the reunification of Germany in the heart of Europe. He was the “gold standard” among White House chiefs of staff, as virtually everyone put it, and went on to become the most consequential secretary of state since Henry Kissinger. In short, he was the un-Trump.

* “WASHINGTON LOVES the ones who grease its gears. But history only remembers the ones who shift them,” the late Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams wrote of Baker. The man she profiled in the Post’s Style section upon his ascension to secretary of state in January 1989 was confident in his stature in the imperial capital at its twilight-of-the-Cold-War apogee, yet insecure enough to wake up each morning ready for battle to prove it. He represented the city’s ideal of itself, a relentless but nonetheless patrician competitor willing to drink a Scotch with his rivals after hours, an Ivy League country-clubber equally at home in tennis whites or toting a shotgun to a duck blind in predawn Texas. This Baker was a master of Washington at the end of almost a decade at its heights; he was smooth and smart and disciplined, “a man in whom drive is more important than destination,” as Williams wrote, but also a gentleman for whom recklessness was as inconceivable as incivility. Baker was a “player,” the capital’s ultimate accolade, and no matter what the game, he figured out a way to come out on top. As Haley Barbour, who worked in the Reagan White House with Baker and went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee and governor of Mississippi, observed to us, “In the two-party system, purity is the enemy of victory, and Jim Baker was a winner.”

* He excelled not just in the Washington arts of self-promotion, palace intrigue, and blame-shifting (although he was world-class at all of them), but also in putting them into service for the real art of the deal, whether it was saving Social Security with congressional Democrats or persuading Soviet leaders to allow two Germanys to become one again or jaw-boning Arab sheikhs into contributing so much money for the liberation of Kuwait that the Gulf War against Iraq became the first American conflict to nearly turn a profit.

He divided problems into three categories, according to David Gergen, a former adviser from his White House days: easy; hard but doable; and impossible. The first category he left to others, the last he wrote off, and the middle is where he focused his energies. As inconceivable as it seems amid our state of endless partisan warfare, getting things done was in fact the currency of the realm in the Washington of Baker’s era and this is what drove him with a ruthless focus and confidence that infuriated others who were ideologically purer and far less effective. Washington has and always will be a town that struggles between outcomes and principles; it is a place where compromise is both necessary and invariably suspect. Did Baker actually stand for anything other than his own advancement? Was it just power for power’s sake? What would he be willing to give up to cut a deal? His critics were not the only ones to wonder. But what was remarkable about Baker was the extent to which his deals stuck.

At the end of his run, when the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was no more, when colleagues from the Reagan White House were out of the power game entirely or writing bitter memoirs about the Iran-contra scandal, Baker had somehow escaped the humbling comedown that is usually a part of the Washington narrative. Instead, Baker’s reputation only grew in the years of gridlock and dysfunction that followed, and he has more recently become a figure of surprisingly bipartisan nostalgia for a different time and a different sort of leadership. “He was the most important unelected official since World War II,” the former national security adviser Tom Donilon, a Democrat, told us.

* “Baker somehow understood the billiards of politics, understood the ricochets,” said Hedrick Smith, who followed him in the 1980s for The New York Times. “He understood how balls careened off each other.” Baker knew when not to exercise power, too, whether it was letting his outmaneuvered White House rival Ed Meese save face with a symbolic but meaningless title or avoiding the temptation to gloat to the Soviets about their geopolitical humiliation.

* Baker did not come to American politics animated by a desire to save the world or even much of a worldview at all, and most of what the law had taught him before he entered public life was about the perils of risk-taking. He was profoundly careful—“Mr. Caution,” his close adviser, Margaret Tutwiler, dubbed him. “A shrink would have a field day with Jim Baker,” Tutwiler observed. “The man is so realistic, without emotion, that even though he’s an emotional, sensitive guy, sometimes it’s so clinical. But he lives in the real, real world. He does not delude himself over fairy tales.” Dispassionate and ever to the point, Baker brought discipline and endless handwritten lists to the challenge of running the world. He was “somebody who likes making order out of chaos,” as his son Will Winston put it. He defined himself as the opposite of an ideologue. “I didn’t have any overarching paradigm for politics,” Baker told us as he reflected on his career years later. “My view was you try to get things done.”

It was in the doing, then, that Baker excelled, in his genius ability to read what others required in a situation and find a way to give some version of that to them while still walking away from the table with whatever prize he sought. Baker was a compulsive winner, but he also had a way of making rivals feel like they had not entirely been defeated. “The Velvet Hammer,” his cousin Preston Moore called him, and Baker was much more pleased when Time used that phrase to headline another cover story about him, this time referring to him not as The Handler but as “a gentleman who hates to lose.” Anyone who had ever tangled with him knew that was true. Baker was that way because of who he was and where he came from, and it was his strange luck, and the country’s, that he happened to be ready to leave his hometown and legal career behind at just the moment when the entire Republican elite had been decimated by Richard Nixon’s Watergate disaster.

And here the story was rich, complex, and surprising in ways we did not expect. The man who would dominate Washington turned out to be an accidental political savant. He did not spend his childhood obsessing over electoral votes or memorizing congressional district boundaries. His Texas clan had viewed politics as a dirty business ever since the Civil War, when the family patriarch, a slave-holding Alabama émigré, had been booted out of a Texas judgeship after the Confederacy’s defeat. “This is not a man who sat back and read Machiavelli or read the great books about influence and power,” noted David Gergen. “It just came naturally to him.”

* Baker had simply never developed the touch of a candidate. “He was the worst retail politician I’ve ever seen,” Jim Barlow, who covered the campaign for the Houston Chronicle, reflected years later. “It’s not that he was a snob. He didn’t feel right in forcing himself on people.” Baker was so uncomfortable with small talk that when the two of them were alone on long flights around the state in a tiny campaign airplane, Barlow taught him gin rummy to avoid awkward silences.

* Baker had missed the moment. He was right that Texas was changing—1978 would be the year that Texas really began transforming from a solid Democratic state into a solid Republican one.

* The discussion was to be held at 10:45 a.m. on a Sunday in 1979. The subject: If George Bush ran for president, what were his chances?

In keeping with his father’s preparation mantra, Baker had a six-page paper drawn up by aides to guide the conversation, a brutally honest assessment of the prospective candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. His plan was to distribute it among the Bush advisers who would attend the meeting, then collect copies back after it was over to prevent leaks.

* Baker was nothing if not organized. Tapped by his friend to put together a national campaign, he set about the task with typically painstaking preparation—assembling a staff, drafting a budget, developing a fundraising plan, crafting a message.

* If handling the family were not awkward enough, there was also the matter of the candidate’s longtime personal assistant, Jennifer Fitzgerald, who was quickly making enemies on the campaign staff. Fitzgerald, an attractive young divorcée, first met Bush while working at the Republican National Committee a few years earlier. Neither spoke of it publicly but it was clear a personal relationship of some closeness developed. Bush even called Fitzgerald regularly one summer at the beach house in North Carolina she was sharing, according to a housemate later contacted by the reporter Susan Page. He brought her to China as his personal secretary and then to the CIA. Many who worked for him over the years wondered about their relationship. Bush, a flirt with a habit of bottom-squeezing attractive women he encountered, repeatedly sought out Fitzgerald despite the questions it raised and any pain it caused Barbara. Colleagues often interpreted Fitzgerald’s airs as a sign that she was the boss’s secret girlfriend. Whether they actually had an affair was never clear; one person in Bush’s inner circle told Page that they had a romantic relationship for a dozen years. Both denied it to Bush’s biographer, Jon Meacham. Baker always professed not to know—but did not rule it out.

* Managing a candidate with a shaky command of facts and a disconcerting penchant for confusing movie tales with real life, Reagan’s team feared putting him onstage without a script for an hour or more, unsure if he would be nimble enough to parry a sitting president far better schooled in the nuances of policy. Nancy Reagan, among others, totally opposed debates. But as the fall wore on, Baker pressed Reagan to take on the president and the California advisers increasingly came to the conclusion that they had to accept at least one or two forums, if only because polls suggested that Reagan still needed to close the deal with the public. “We can’t run out the clock when we don’t have the football,” said Drew Lewis, who ran Reagan’s campaign in Pennsylvania.

* Michael Deaver later credited Baker with convincing Reagan to debate Anderson. Either way, Baker thought the visual would work to Reagan’s benefit—Carter would look afraid by not showing up. And he counted on Reagan’s winning personality to shine against Anderson’s dour persona. On the night of the debate in Baltimore on September 21, Baker gave Reagan a card just before he went onstage with one word of advice: “Chuckle.” As it turned out, Anderson proved a good sparring partner for Reagan to warm up against. “It sort of wiped Anderson out,” Baker said. “He was, after all, a Republican, and he was a terrible debater and he was a colorless guy.”

* Reagan’s team wanted a date as late as possible, figuring that the closer to the election, the better. Baker went so far as to propose that the debate be held on the night before the election. Carter rejected that, assuming that Reagan would make a blunder and wanting more time for any gaffe to sink in with the public. They settled on October 28 at the Cleveland Convention Center—still late enough in the campaign that it played in Reagan’s favor. “We were outfoxed by Jim Baker in agreeing to it so close to the election,” Stuart Eizenstat, a top Carter adviser, later concluded. More importantly, in Eizenstat’s view, Baker’s ability to convince Reagan to debate in the first place proved decisive. “His confidence in his candidate may have assured his election,” he said. Carter also came to believe that Baker had gotten the better of him. “He out-traded the people who were representing me at the time,” he said years later.

* Trump is many things, one of which has been an extraordinary X-ray into the soul of others as they react to him and the challenges he poses to the American political system. In Baker’s case, Trump had revealed the limits of the mythology that had grown up around the man. Democrats might embrace Baker’s pragmatic approach to the world. Democrats might embrace Baker’s pragmatic approach to the world. But in the end, he was a Republican and that, he told us, was how he wanted to be remembered. His struggle reflected the larger one by the party he had helped build. Once anathema to its leaders, Trump effectively captured the party, forcing it to toe the line, with dissidents crushed or exiled. Much more than in Baker’s time, Washington had become a place of tribes, with a permanent war of us against them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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