CLICK TO SHARE
Across decades and presidencies, he excelled at the sort of deal-making that no longer seems possible. Here are his most indelible lessons for getting and keeping power in the capital.
Peter Baker is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Susan Glasser is a staff writer for The New Yorker and former editor of POLITICO. This article has been adapted from their book, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, to be published on September 29.
When James A. Baker III came to Washington in the mid-1970s to take an obscure post in the Commerce Department, he had no prior experience in government and had hardly even voted regularly up until that point in his life. He had only been a Republican for a few years, and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather — all distinguished Texas lawyers like Baker himself — had imposed a strict family creed of staying out of politics. For his first 40 years, Baker had followed their lead.
And yet, within a year of arriving in the capital as a nobody in the Ford administration, with little to recommend him but his friendship with an up-and-comer named George H.W. Bush, his doubles partner from the Houston Country Club, Baker somehow found himself running the campaign of the incumbent president of the United States. Over the next few decades, Baker would go on to run five presidential campaigns, winning two of them, and hold a number of the most powerful positions in Washington, serving as Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary, and Bush’s secretary of state. For a generation, in fact, from the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War, every Republican president relied on Baker to manage his campaign, his White House, his world. Baker brought them to office or helped them stay there, then steered them through the momentous events that followed. He was Washington’s indispensable man.
So how did he do it? Working on his biography these past few years, we found that was the question virtually everyone had about Baker, now 90. In today’s dysfunctional Washington, awe at Baker’s accomplishments is a rare bipartisan phenomenon, and we heard from players in both parties who wanted to know Baker’s secret, the clue to how an obscure corporate lawyer could come to the capital, their capital, and succeed at a series of the hardest, most consequential jobs in the world. It’s a question that seems all the more relevant today amid political discord so epic that Congress and the Trump White House cannot even agree on how to give money away to hurting Americans during a deadly pandemic and recession. Baker, a relentless competitor who hated to lose but still believed in having a Scotch after work with his adversaries, excelled at just the sort of deal-making that no longer seems possible — real deals of the world-changing kind, with Democrats at home and Soviets abroad.
If you don't see any comments yet, congrats! You get first comment. Be nice and have fun.
CLICK TO SHARE