Peter Baker, Susan Glasser
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-0-3855-4055-1, 720 pgs., $35
September 29, 2020
Nothing could be more relevant in an election year than the presidency. In this biography of James A. Baker III, Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser take readers deep inside the remarkable odyssey of his decades as Republican Party loyalist, Washington kingmaker, and overseer and engineer of several US presidencies.
The writing is spare and clean; the author duo are more historians than political analysts, so interpretation and extraction of meaning is minimal; that’s the mark of a good historian, writing a true biographical account, leaving interpretations and subjective analyses to readers. The book therefore cries out for secondary sources and hermeneutics, but nonetheless serves as an impeccably sourced and detailed primary account of the powerbroker’s life and times, successes and failures, exultation and heartache, all at the epicenter of American politics and government.
Readers first encounter ninety-something James Baker in a 2016 interview with the authors that is emblematic of the man’s struggle with politics and loyalty: “I haven’t voted for him yet,” James Baker confides, torn between party loyalty and his dislike for the Republican presidential candidate. This is the recurring ideological precipice upon which he teeters throughout his career: the intersection of convictions and duty, personal beliefs and loyalty. He believed that tested loyalty and oft-demanded sacrifice, against his personal values and self-interest, were for the benefit of the Republican Party and, ultimately, the nation.
There is a lengthy account of Baker-family history, seemingly longer than necessary, except that as the reader soon discovers, James Baker’s life’s work mirrors his father's, Captain Baker’s, role as negotiator and problem solver on the national level. Past is prologue, and the Captain’s approach to nettlesome, high-stakes quandaries prefigures James Baker’s national and international negotiations and problem-solving.
The early event that launched him into politics was not, the authors correct the common misconception, the untimely death of his wife; rather, her death delayed a congressional run he’d contemplated for some time. Instead, an alliance with old Houston friend and colleague George H. W. Bush, who wished to “take [his] mind off of [his] grief,” drew James Baker from a prospective Democratic Party candidacy to managing Bush’s Republican campaign against yet another fellow Houstonian, Lloyd Bentsen. This typifies James Baker from the start, choosing loyalty—in this case to Republican Bush—over his Democratic affiliation.
He hired on to work behind the scenes for Bush as the latter rose through Washington power circles. Fast forward to 1980 and the Republican primaries: it’s James Baker who not only must convince Bush that he cannot surmount Ronald Reagan’s delegate lead but also broker the number-two spot on the Republican ticket for Bush. Reagan was angry about Bush’s campaign rhetoric; James Baker convinced him that Bush would complement his conservatism and, moreover, persuaded Reagan to set aside his longtime chief of staff Ed Meese and install him as White House chief of staff.
Still, the authors reveal, all was not peaceable within the Reagan-Bush inner circle: “Baker simply engineered himself into the White House Chief of Staff,” Barbara Bush grumps, a wry, plangent insider view to which the authors are privy, making this biography all the more authentic. The next three decades of his life as Reagan’s presidential gatekeeper, secretary of the treasury and finally, secretary of state, are impeccably documented with equally rich insider details.
Perhaps the most unexpected, revealing perspective of James Baker's later years in his State Department cabinet post was more his domestic, rather than foreign, negotiations. At home he achieved what previous Secretary of State Schultz had been unable to do: negotiate with Speaker of the House Jim Wright, fellow Texan and opposition-party stalwart, hammering out a bipartisan resolution to the problematic and ongoing military intervention in South America. For James Baker, and ultimately Wright, the elusive compromise was not a sellout but rather, as he tells the authors, the very purpose for which he went to Washington in the first place. The reason anyone should go to Washington, he posits, “is to get things done.”
This book is a captivating, detailed, straightforward, and plainspoken account of James Baker’s extraordinary years of leadership and service in Washington, finally negotiating for himself an honorable resolution to the recurring clash of ideology and loyalty.
Return to James Baker confiding, regarding the 2016 election, “I haven’t voted for him yet.” He never reveals his choice, after yet another contest between the man and the party loyalist. But readers, after consuming this fascinating history, will have a pretty good idea of how that turned out.
Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, responsible for covering President Trump, the fourth president he has covered. He is the author of six books, most recently "The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III," co-authored with his wife, Susan Glasser. Baker has won all three major awards devoted to White House reporting: the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Coverage of the Presidency (twice), the Aldo Beckman Memorial Award (twice), and the Merriman Smith Memorial Award. He is also a political analyst for MSNBC and a regular panelist on PBS’s Washington Week. Baker lives in Washington.
Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington. Glasser has served as the top editor of several Washington publications; most recently, she founded the award-winning Politico Magazine and went on to become the editor of Politico throughout the 2016 election cycle. She previously served as the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, which won three National Magazine Awards, among other honors, during her tenure. Glasser is the author of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution and The Man Who Rand Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Bakker III, both of which she co-wrote with her husband, Peter Baker. Glasser lives in Washington.