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