Tales, wis­dom from the long, il­lus­tri­ous po­lit­i­cal ca­reer of James Baker

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Amem­oir by some­one with the re­sume of James A. Baker III is a pub­lish­ing event of some im­por­tance, and not just for those who reg­u­larly de­vour the latest po­lit­i­cal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Mr. Baker has a Zelig-like qual­ity about him that be­comes ar­rest­ingly ob­vi­ous as one works one’s way through this book.

From his latest (it’s quite ob­vi­ously not yet safe to say “last”) pub­lic role of head­ing the bi­par­ti­san Iraq Study Group all the way back to his emer­gence into pol­i­tics in 1970, when, af­ter the death of his first wife he agreed to help out with the cam­paign of his friend and ten­nis part­ner Ge­orge H.W. Bush, Mr. Baker seems to ap­pear in the back­ground of al­most ev­ery po­lit­i­cal snap­shot.

He was in Ger­ald Ford’s Com­merceDepart­ment­be­fore­work­ing onMr.Ford’s1976pres­i­den­tial­cam­paign; he ran for Texas at­tor­ney gen­eral in 1978, and man­aged Mr. Bush’s cam­paign dur­ing the Repub­li­can pri­maries in 1980 be­fore join­ing the Rea­gan team for the gen­eral elec­tion. Upon Rea­gan’s vic­tory he be­came White House chief of staff, then Trea­sury sec­re­tary, then Mr. Bush’s sec­re­tary of state, his chief of staff and fi­nally his cam­paign man­ager in 1992.

He briefly con­sid­ered his own run­fortheWhiteHou­sein1996and then reap­peared as Ge­orge W. Bush’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive amidst the elec­toral chaos in Florida in 2000. Just to re­count the barest out­line of such an im­pres­sive ca­reer is ex­haust­ing. When he says he knows “the job of the pres­i­dency about as well as it can be known with­out ever hav­ing held the of­fice,” it’s hard to dis­agree.

It is clear that Mr. Baker and co- au­thor Steve Fif­fer tried hard to dis­till all of Mr. Baker’s ac­cu­mu­lated ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom in or­der to, as he puts it, “share a few of th­ese lessons and ideas” learned over the course of a “long and var­ied life.” Cer­tainly a wor­thy goal, this, in light of the par­tic­u­lar life in ques­tion.

And to his ben­e­fit, Mr. Baker comes across in th­ese pages as an able, per­son­able and re­mark­ably nor­mal in­di­vid­ual and a sort of a wealthy and well-con­nected Ev­ery­man whose ded­i­ca­tion, hard work and ad­mit­ted am­bi­tion — plus his friend­ship with Ge­orge H.W. Bush — has kept him at the right hand of po­lit­i­cal power for much of the last 30 years.

He is also a man of a firm re­li­gious faith, a part of his life that comes across with sur­pris­ing clar­ity in th­ese pages. We must read the ti­tle with a sense of irony, of course, it be­ing lifted from wis­dom dis­pensed by his grand­fa­ther, while from his fa­ther came the of­ten re­peated ad­mo­ni­tion of “prior prepa­ra­tion pre­vents poor per­for­mance.” Such­nugget­sofhome­spun­wis­dom Mr. Baker has tried to live by, and in do­ing so he be­came the valu­able lieu­tenant that four pres­i­dents clearly saw him to be.

It is from his abun­dance of ex­pe­ri­ence that this episodic book takes its roughly chrono­logic tra­jec­tory (“roughly” be­cause it of­ten and in­ex­pli­ca­bly skips around in time). Mr. Baker’s ca­reer en­sures that many of th­ese vi­gnettes pro­vide fresh in­sight on familiar sto­ries such as the Per­sian Gulf War, the Rea­gan tax cut bat­tle and the Florida elec­tion cri­sis.

The­lat­ter­iso­ne­ofthe­more­grip­ping tales Mr. Baker tells, and ef­fec­tively re­cap­tures the dif­fi­cult un- cer­tainty and re­mark­able na­tional stress the en­tire af­fair pro­duced. TheeventsofSeptem­ber11­com­ing lessthanayear­latererod­edthep­ub­licmem­o­ry­ofjusthow­stress­ful­late Novem­ber and early De­cem­ber of 2000 were.

Mr. Baker calls the Florida Supreme Court de­ci­sion to ex­tend the dead­line for re­counts “an out­ra­geous piece of ju­di­cial over­reach­ing,” and re­minds us that the pur­pose of tak­ing the mat­ter to the U.S. Supre­meCourt“was­not­toover­turn the elec­tion” but to pre­serve a law­ful vic­tory by stop­ping “a sub­jec­tive re­count sys­tem with­out uni­form stan­dards, which we be­lieved was both wrong and un­con­sti­tu­tional.”

The whole af­fair was an “un­set­tling ex­pe­ri­ence for the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” but one in which Mr. Baker sees the ul­ti­mate vin­di­ca­tion of the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem. His par­tic­i­pa­tion ul­ti­mately led to his be­ing part of a bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion for elec­tion re­form in 2005, the re­sults of which he praises.

Also com­ing in for praise are his friends, fore­most among them his best friend Ge­orge H.W. Bush. Their po­lit­i­cal ca­reers are en­twined closely in th­ese pages, and what emerges is some­thing like an ef­fec­tive part­ner­ship be­tween two men — two politi­cians, mind you! — that have gen­uine re­spect and af­fec­tion for one an­other. To­ward the end of the book Mr. Baker ven­tures that they may even be re­mote cousins.

Ron­aldRea­ganal­so­come­sacross very well in the book, for in­stance re­luc­tantly yet gra­ciously ac­cept­ing Mr. Baker’s res­ig­na­tion from the Trea­sury De­part­ment so he could man­age Mr. Bush’s 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Rea­gan is an­other of the book’s fixed stars, from his 1976 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign through to his death in the sum­mer of 2004.

Scan­dals from Iran-Con­tra to En­ron get pass­ing men­tion, but to no great sur­prise are not ex­plored in depth. But in other sto­ries, the book bogs down. He care­fully ex­plains, for in­stance, the tricky job of count­ing Ger­ald Ford’s del­e­gates through the 1976 cam­paign lead­ing up to the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion.

In­some­oneelse’shands,per­haps, this could be trans­formed into grip­ping lit­er­a­ture, but here it is merely te­dious. The same can be said of his blow-by-blow retelling of the Rea­gan tax-cut plan which, al­though it rein­tro­duces us to the once-cap­ti­vat­ing but now largely forgotten fig­ure of David Stock­man, in­evitably makes the reader think of the old adage about how no one should watch law or sausages be­ing made.

In gen­eral the book man­ages to be an odd com­bi­na­tion of breezy and te­dious through which nev­er­the­less emerge some truly cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ries. The breezi­ness is spread more widely than the te­dium, which, one should ad­mit, is the bet­ter ar­range­ment of the two pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Whether Mr. Baker is dili­gently sep­a­rat­ing “the wheat from the chaff,” lament­ing that it’s dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish true friend­ships in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or re­mind­ing us that to be suc­cess­ful in pol­i­tics one must have a “fire in the belly,” there is an over­abun­dance of cliches scat­tered through­out­the­book,the­cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect be­ing to make it in places undis­tin­guish­able from any other ba­nal po­lit­i­cal mem­oir.

It also tends to be repet­i­tive. We’re told mul­ti­ple times that Ge­orge H.W. Bush was dis­ap­pointed by Nixon’s pass­ing over him for the po­si­tion of Trea­sury sec­re­tary, that ev­ery­one likes to side with a win­ner, and that it was con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat Kent Hance who beat Ge­orge W. Bush in the lat­ter’s first po­lit­i­cal con­test in 1978.

Late in the book we’re also treated to a re­view of Mr. Baker’s great-grand­fa­ther help­ing to build Hous­ton’s Baker Botts law firm (“that’s where the ‘Baker’ in the firm name came from” he tells us, in case we hadn’t fig­ured it out) and how the au­thor joined up with a ri­val firm fresh out of law school, again just in case it had slipped our minds since chap­ter one. Three times we’re told that his great­grand­fa­ther was a friend of Sam Hous­ton, but since Mr. Baker is a na­tive Texan, such rep­e­ti­tion is un­der­stand­able.

In the end, though, the flaws are mi­nor, and will at worst re­sult in a page or two be­ing oc­ca­sion­ally skipped to no great loss. At the end, there­ad­er­will­come­awayfromthis book with the gen­eral re­al­iza­tion that de­spite his ubiq­uity, we didn’t know James Baker quite as well as wethoughtwe­did.Andthati­t­is­fine to get to know and ap­pre­ci­ate this good and hon­est man, who served the pub­lic so long, a bit bet­ter.

David A. Smith teaches his­tory at Bay­lor Univer­sity in Waco, Texas.

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