For that reason, some of the most illuminating biographies these days are about important figures who never occupied the Oval Office but who indisputably shaped the course of great events through their successes and their failures. George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke last year was one such example. Now, “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser will rank alongside it as among the very best books about American political life in the late 20th century. (Peter Baker is not related to James Baker.)
Making use of a mass of stories and new details, the authors portray Baker against the background of a different era, when bipartisan solutions were possible, when disputes were sometimes settled through compromise, and when political opponents were willing to recognize the humanity and legitimacy of the other side. Baker did play hardball, yet within limits; he did not seek to challenge the fundamentals of the political system or its institutions the way President Trump does. Baker wanted to be taken seriously as a man of state, not merely a political operative, and that, too, created inhibitions that don’t seem to apply in the Trump era.
Baker operated (and that is the right verb) at the center of events in Washington for more than a quarter-century, considerably longer than many presidents. He served as Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff and treasury secretary; he then was George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state during the earthshaking events of 1989-92, as the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany was reunified and America defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. He served again as White House chief of staff for Bush in 1992.
Baker’s power and influence extended far beyond these government jobs. In politics, he was in charge of lining up convention delegates for Gerald Ford in his primary battle with Reagan in 1976 and went on to manage three presidential campaigns for his friend George H.W. Bush. In the wake of the 2000 election, he returned to political life to take charge of the battle over disputed votes in Florida, spearheading the effort that brought George W. Bush to the White House.
The authors’ portrait of Baker is among other things a description of how Washington used to work. If Holbrooke failed because he was the proverbial bull in the china shop, Baker by contrast could make the china sing. He cultivated Congress and the press masterfully. “Baker recognized . . . that power in Washington was driven in part by the perception of power and that no one did more to create or preserve that perception than the media,” the authors write.
He mastered those techniques inside the White House. In the early months of the Reagan administration, he cagily outmaneuvered rivals including Ed Meese and Alexander Haig. Baker gradually developed what the authors call his “plug-in unit” — a small group of aides who worked for him again and again through his series of jobs. Margaret Tutwiler, who dealt with the press, began working for Baker during Ford’s presidential campaign. Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt, who handled policy, came on board at the Treasury Department. They all served with Baker at the State Department, and eight years later, when Baker set up an office in Tallahassee to take charge of the Florida recount battle, most of the old team joined him there, too.
Yet, curiously, Baker often remained personally distant even from these loyalists. “It was all business,” Zoellick told the authors years later. “He never said to me, ‘Call me Jim.’ ” For years, Baker didn’t meet Zoellick’s wife and didn’t know what his home state was.
Within Washington, Baker specialized in deals and compromises. He won enactment of Reagan’s tax reform package in 1986 by working closely with Democrats, and he negotiated agreements with the Soviet Union in its dying days. He usually tried to leave the other side some of what it wanted and with some degree of respect. If all of this seems foreign to the way things work today, the authors mean it that way; they draw the contrast several times. Could Baker, with all his wiles, have succeeded in these poisonous, polarized times? Almost certainly not.
The book is hardly a hagiography. Baker was involved over the years in some decidedly nonheroic activities, and his family life was at times messy. The authors include those parts, too, such as the ugly Willie Horton campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, the Florida recount and, meanwhile, the Baker family’s upheavals and drug use.
It also covers his long, almost co-dependent relationship with George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush, not a gifted politician, needed and almost always turned to Baker to run his campaigns, while Baker, in turn, needed Bush’s unwavering support to succeed in government, especially as secretary of state. Yet the friendship was sometimes barbed. Barbara Bush had a few disparaging things to say about Baker, suggesting he was above all out for himself. In 2016, the Bushes and Baker went their separate ways on the question of Trump: Both former presidents refused to vote for him, but Baker, who believed that Trump was “crazy,” voted for him on the grounds that he always supported the Republican nominee.
There has long been speculation that Bush had a personal relationship with his longtime assistant Jennifer Fitzgerald, although both of them denied it. In an interview for this book, Baker told the authors that he “professed not to know, but did not rule it out.” Coming from Baker, who was Bush’s closest friend for decades and also in charge of his daily logistics at campaign time, “not ruling it out” is saying a lot, without quite saying it.
The central tension in the book lies in Baker’s continuing desire to be considered a statesman rather than a fixer or a dealmaker. He served as secretary of state during the most tumultuous changes in the world in the past half-century — but was he just in the right place at the right time? That’s certainly what detractors like the omnipresent Kissinger thought. “He has a less complicated approach to international order,” he told the authors.
The authors agree with such criticisms, but only up to a point. Baker “articulated no grand plan for the country or the world,” they write. And yet, “he could bring together people who were more comfortable apart and find pragmatic ways to paper over any rifts. . . . Somehow, in the main, it worked. Things got done.” The Soviet Union collapsed peacefully, and Germany was reunified. That wasn’t all Baker’s doing, but it wasn’t inevitable, either.
It’s doubtful that any future historian will be able to gather as much information about Baker as the authors have. They interviewed not just aides and colleagues but a wide variety of luminaries, a few of whom (like George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister) have since died.
Sometimes, this research served to penetrate Baker’s instinctive caution and caginess. The authors found Andrew Carpendale, a former speechwriter who was enlisted to help write Baker’s memoir about his time as secretary of state. Carpendale quit after Baker cut from the original draft some sensitive passages, such as his admission that it might have been a “tactical mistake” for the Bush administration to pull out of Iraq so quickly after the Persian Gulf War.
Above all, “The Man Who Ran Washington” works so well because of its anecdotes about Baker’s adroitness, for good and for ill. In their lucid account of the 2000 post-election battle in Florida, the authors set the scene with an initial meeting between Baker, representing George W. Bush, and Warren Christopher, representing Democrat Al Gore.
Christopher began by suggesting that Bush and Gore get together to work out some solution. “Well, Chris, we’re not here to negotiate,” Baker replied. “Governor Bush won the election on Tuesday. The votes have been counted already.” Baker stuck to that position until the Supreme Court awarded Bush the presidency.
“Was it statesmanlike?” the authors ask. “Maybe not. But Baker had proved once again that there was no better fixer in American politics.”
The Man Who Ran Washington
The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser