James Addison Baker III has served as White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State. He helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, won George HW Bush’s victory in 1988, and led George W. Bush to victory in the 2000 Florida recount. And yet his father warned him to avoid completely politics.
The lesson did not last. Drawn to gambling and government service by elder Bush, Baker emerged from his time in Washington as a great American, a living remnant of an era when politicians negotiated across the aisle. At the time, Time magazine called it the “Velvet Hammer”. The nickname stuck.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, a husband and wife team, deliver a masterful, 720-page highly informative biography. As the United States mired in a cold civil war, heading for a presidential election, their book reminds us that things weren’t always like this.
As one would expect from the New York Times White House correspondent (Baker) and a New Yorker editor and writer (Glasser), The Man Who Ran Washington has been meticulously researched. A multitude of endnotes testify to their work. The authors interviewed their subject, his family, a former driver, social peers and contemporaries. They searched libraries and archives.
Their tone is respectful and admiring, but not reverent. They tag Baker for his penchant for self-polishing, for distancing himself from trouble, and for having his loyalty questioned by members of the Bush family after Bill Clinton was defeated. Still, The Man Who Ran Washington records Baker’s triumphs, of which there were many.
With Michael Deaver and Ed Meese, for example, he kept Reagan’s first term on track. Of note, the book shows how a “unruffled and in control” Baker briefed the President’s staff after the attempted assassination of John Hinckley. Suffice to say that the distance between Baker and Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s last chief of staff, must be measured in light years.
As Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury, Baker was instrumental in midwifery tax reform, which removed the working poor from the tax roll, but lowered marginal rates for the rich and also reduced tax deductions. It was a distinctly two-party enterprise. Baker, a preppy from Texas via Princeton, had to work with Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat from Chicago and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The objectives took precedence over the characters.
Rightly, the authors view Baker’s time as Secretary of State as his most significant contribution. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc fragmented, the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended.
Baker also helped his boss build a meaningful coalition against Saddam Hussein, an alliance against Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Even China, Russia, Egypt and Syria were at least nominally on board.
Beyond that, Baker was very attentive to domestic politics. He urged the president to get congressional approval for military action, supplanting Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, as well as the president’s attorney and chief of staff.
“We wanted everyone to be on the boat in case things go wrong,” said Janet Mullins, Baker’s congressional liaison officer. “Baker got it. Bush had to be convinced.
Baker bet well. Both the House and the Senate have given Bush the green light. Whether the Democrats control both houses ultimately doesn’t matter.
The Man Who Ran Washington is not a hagiography. The authors report a clash between Baker and Andrew Carpendale, a speechwriter, over the manuscript of Baker’s 1995 memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy, and what fell in the cutting room. Carpendale lost this battle but The Man Who Ran Washington records his words.
Baker “manages to do as an author what he has done so well in more than 12 years in power in Washington: glorify his own successes, avoid all hint of failure and sidestep the truth,” wrote Carpendale, in a caustic pre-publication note to Boulanger. Unsurprisingly, the two men stopped talking.
Baker may be wrong – for example, when he is pushing for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians when no one seems particularly excited about the prospect. Speaking in 2015, he expressed his disappointment with Benjamin Netanyahu and observed with sadness: “The odds of a two-state solution seem even slimmer, given his overthrow on the issue.”
Going back in time, Baker called Netanyahu a persona non grata in Foggy Bottom. These days, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are normalizing their relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a close friend of Bush and Baker, castigates the Palestinians.
Baker was better at diplomacy and drawing sons than as a candidate himself. In 1978 he ran for Texas attorney general – and lost 10 points to Democrat Mark White. Four years later, White was elected governor of Texas. Baker considered running for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, then wisely refused to continue. It is not a happy natural.
Baker’s role in the Republican Party’s growing discomfort with the changing American majority has not been explored by the authors. In 1976, Baker led Gerald Ford’s losing presidential campaign, and the idea arose that a recount might be demanded in Ohio. Baker crushed the idea because Ford had lost the popular vote.
Almost a quarter of a century later, Baker led the young Bush to victory in a post-election legal battle in Florida, despite the candidate trailing Al Gore by over half a million votes at the level. national.
These days, Republicans are pondering state legislatures usurping the public’s right to elect president, and Utah Senator Mike Lee is tweeting that the United States is not a democracy.
At 90, Baker is keenly aware of his own mortality. Glasser and Peter Baker tell how they accompanied him to his family funeral. He “had always known where he came from,” they write, “and he had always known where he would end up. That’s all that came as a surprise.
The Man Who Ran Washington is a suitable bookend for a life well lived.