James Addison Baker III served as White House chief of staff, treasury secretary and secretary of state. He helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, skippered George HW Bush’s win in 1988 and quarterbacked George W Bush to victory in the 2000 Florida recount. And yet he was warned by his father to avoid politics altogether.
The lesson did not take. Lured to the game and government service by the elder Bush, Baker emerged from his time in Washington as an American grandee, a living vestige of an era when politicians negotiated across the aisle. Back in the day, Time magazine called him the “Velvet Hammer”. The nickname stuck.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, a husband and wife team, deliver a masterly biography, 720 highly informative pages. As the US stands mired in a cold civil war, heading for a presidential election, their book reminds us that things were not always like this.
As to be expected from the New York Times White House correspondent (Baker) and an editor and writer at the New Yorker (Glasser), The Man Who Ran Washington is meticulously researched. A multitude of endnotes evidences their labors. The authors interviewed their subject, his family, a former driver, social peers and contemporaries. They plowed through libraries and archives.
Their tone is respectful and admiring, but not reverential. They tag Baker for his penchant for buffing his image, for distancing himself from trouble, and for having his loyalty questioned by members of the Bush family after defeat by Bill Clinton. Yet The Man Who Ran Washington records Baker’s triumphs, of which there were many.
Along with Michael Deaver and Ed Meese, for example, he kept Reagan’s first term on track. Of note, the book captures how an “unflappable and in command” Baker briefed members of the president’s staff after John Hinckley’s assassination attempt. Suffice to say, the distance between Baker and Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s latest chief of staff, must be measured in light years.
As Reagan’s treasury secretary, Baker helped midwife tax reform, which removed the working poor from the tax rolls but cut marginal rates for the wealthy and curbed tax deductions too. It was a markedly bipartisan endeavor. Baker, a Texas preppy via Princeton, had to work with Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat from Chicago and chairman of the House ways and means committee. Goals trumped personas.
Rightly, the authors see Baker’s time as secretary of state as his most significant contribution. On his watch, the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc fragmented, the Berlin Wall fell, the cold war came to a halt.
Baker also helped his boss assemble a meaningful coalition against Saddam Hussein, an alliance against Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Even China, Russia, Egypt and Syria were at least nominally on board.