The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book grabbed my attention when it came out, as I always had a grudging respect for Baker, but did not know much about him, or the details on how he came to hold such power over so many years in Washington. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have come up with an outstanding biography of Baker that gives us a real clear view of his life, and a career that is truly remarkable.
James Baker was a close friend of George H.W. Bush, both Texas men that became friends as Bush was beginning his political career. The Bush career was not without some pretty serious detours on his way to the Presidency but he always managed to have influence in the national GOP, and that influence helped James Baker become the undersecretary in the Commerce Department in the Ford Administration. He never looked back, quickly, and on his own, becoming a key cog for President Ford in the 1976 battle for the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan. Baker, in that fight, became Ford’s chief delegate hunter as both campaigns fought for every delegate in their tough battle for the GOP nomination. As the real career of James Baker got started the book gives us a look at some of the big names in the GOP, including Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Elliot Richardson, and Rogers Morton. After Ford’s narrow win over Reagan for the GOP nomination Baker was tapped to lead the Ford campaign into the general election, one of five times he was to lead a Republican campaign for President. Although Ford lost that race to Jimmy Carter he closed a pretty big Carter lead to make it a very close race.
One thing that I did not realize was that Baker had actually run for office himself. After the Ford campaign Baker, one of many in the South who joined the GOP from the Democratic Party, ran for Attorney General of Texas. Baker saw an opportunity to run against a liberal Democrat, but that “liberal” did not win the nomination, leaving Baker in a race against Mark White, a more conservative Democrat. Baker was crushed in that race. (White went on to become Governor.) Baker was described in the book as a pretty poor retail politician:
“’He was the worst retail politician I have 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.’”
“The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III Peter Baker & Susan Glasser p 102.”
Baker would, from that point forward, be the man in the background. As much as he hated to be known as a “fixer” his political skills would be used to help elect Republican Presidents and then to help to run Republican Administrations. Baker may not have been a great “retail politician” as a candidate, but he was most astute when developing winning strategies for other candidates. As George H.W. Bush prepared to enter the 1980 Presidential race he turned to James Baker for advice, and to run the campaign. Once again Baker would be running a campaign attempting to stop Ronald Reagan from getting the GOP nomination. As Bush started that race Reagan was a heavy favorite, and justifiably so, having nearly knocked off an incumbent President in 1976. Baker, in his initial presentation to Bush, highlighted what he felt was important in that race:
“Key to winning is: Start early, & develop an organization better than any of the opponents. McGovern did it. Nixon did it. Carter did it. Primary elections are won by organization! Almost regardless of candidate. He underlined organization.”
“The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III Peter Baker & Susan Glasser p 105”
Bush actually defeated Reagan in the very first test of strength, winning the Iowa caucuses by a narrow margin over the Gipper, putting himself into a high-profile position. Bush and Baker would lose that nomination fight to Reagan, but Bush managed to become the choice for Vice-President. When Reagan assimilated some of the Bush operation for the general election Baker managed to shine, heading up the Reagan debate team, charged with preparing the candidate and negotiating debate details with the opposing campaigns. As Reagan moved towards victory some in his camp, which had the usual internal rivalries, moved to get Reagan to make Baker the Presidential Chief of Staff. The book covers Baker’s ascent to that position, and his out-maneuvering of Ed Meese, who was Governor Reagan’s Chief of Staff in California. The “troika” solution to running the White House after the Reagan victory made Meese happy, and solved a political problem for Reagan, but left real power in the hands of the Reagan “outsider” James Baker. It also created a bit of strain with the Bush family, which had some believe that Baker was an opportunist. Barbara Bush is listed as one of those not entirely happy with Baker.
The book covers some truly fascinating times in the Reagan Presidency, including a fairly well burnt-out Chief of Staff Baker engineering a “trade” of jobs with then Treasury Secretary Don Regan. Baker, sensing it was time to move on, most certainly got the better of that deal, with Don Regan turning out to be a disaster as Chief of Staff, and Baker managing to steer clear of some of the major political mistakes of the second Reagan term. Before that trade we get some great reminders of the problems with Al Haig as Secretary of State, great coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, where Haig’s pronouncement that “I am in control here in the White House” was the beginning of the political end for him.
Baker, as Treasury Secretary, is covered quite well. On a personal basis it was Baker’s strong preference to be doing a Cabinet level job of substance, as opposed to the political work that he had made his mark with. His stewardship of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 is given a good look, and it is quite clear that he had a very successful tenure at Treasury.
Despite Baker’s preference, when called upon by Vice President Bush to take over the Bush campaign for President, he resigned as Treasury Secretary and assumed control of the Bush campaign. We get to see some notable names from the GOP of that era, including the late Lee Atwater, who was involved with that campaign before Baker. The Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis was a tough and nasty campaign, and the book covers the Willie Horton slash and burn tactics, which over the years have been largely attributed to Atwater. Baker gives his views on that through interviews, and he tried to offload responsibility to some degree, but the campaign showed that Baker, as well as Atwater, was willing to deploy some pretty nasty tactics to achieve victory.
Baker, in the new Bush Administration, was named Secretary of State, and his tenure there had some of the most impactful events in U.S. history, as the Soviet Union was disbanded, the Berlin wall fell, and Germany was reunited. That was a great part of the book, and that period alone has filled up many other books. We see Mikhail Gorbachev and follow Baker as he globetrots, managing the Soviet-German issue, explosive events in the Middle East, including the Bush effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and a host of other issues critical to the United States. Baker was a substantial Secretary of State, with a host of big achievements during his tenure.
As George H W Bush geared up for re-election he once again called on Baker to take control of the campaign, and return to the White House as Chief of Staff. Baker was deeply reluctant, and tried to evade the Presidential request, but eventually he could not say no to his friend and President. He left the job he really loved, as Secretary of State, to go back to the political arena, where some felt that his heart was not in it. Baker is the only man to hold down the Chief of Staff position twice, but his magic could not rescue his friend from defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. The Bush family was not exactly enthralled with Baker’s performance in the final race for Bush 41, but the friendship between the two never faded.
The loss of George H.W. Bush ended Baker’s run in Washington, but he still had a major role to play in national politics, heading up the Florida recount operation for George W. Bush, having been recruited by his old friend George H.W. Bush. Baker simply overmatched the Gore campaign’s head man Warren Christopher. Baker was simply too tough of an operative for Christopher to handle, and W. came away with the win. Despite Baker’s aversion to being seen as a political person he was a pretty impressive operator in that environment.
The book gives us some insight into Baker’s view of Donald Trump. I think it is important only in that Baker’s discomfort in talking about Trump is reflective of the move away from his type of politics. Baker was not a rigid ideologue, and he was always looking to get things done, even if it meant cutting some deals with the opposition. He was criticized by some of the Reagan “true believers” as insufficiently conservative but he believed in a political process where getting most of what you want out of a deal may make it worthwhile. That philosophy is just not in vogue these days. As a manager Baker, according to David Gergen, placed problems into three categories:
“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.”
“The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James Baker III Peter Baker & Susan Glasser Prologue xviii.”
I was so impressed with this book that I intend to take up a few others by Peter Baker and highly recommend this one.