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Better Late Than Never

Shortly after 10 PM on the night of Tuesday, December 12, 2000, in Tallahassee, Florida, James Addison Baker III received a telephone call from George W. Bush, who was in Austin, Texas, that night and already in his pajamas. The United States Supreme Court had just handed down the decisions in Bush v. Gore. There was much confusion in both Democratic and Republican camps as lawyers and aides scrambled to interpret the decisions. Television reporters, reading the opinions for the first time on the air, offered wildly differing (and ill-informed) interpretations. Bush’s strategist Karl Rove, watching one channel at campaign headquarters in northern Virginia, concluded that the Court had decided in his candidate’s favor and called the Texas governor to congratulate him. Bush, watching another channel that was spinning the decisions differently, thought the opposite.

Bush may have been confused about the decisions’ meaning, but he had no doubts about whom to call as his final authority on the matter. James Baker, the old family friend whose rise to prominence owed everything to the help of his close friend from Texas George H.W. Bush, had not been involved in the campaign, by Bush Jr.’s choice. But Baker had been summoned by Don Evans, the Bush-Cheney campaign chairman (and current commerce secretary) to orchestrate the thirty-six-day partisan knife-fight on Bush’s behalf—it was Baker who decided, on November 11, to go to federal court to block a statewide recount (a move that, according to the legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin, took “stunning bravado—or, seen in a different light, hypocrisy”1 ). And now, a month later, the highest federal court in the land had indeed decided in his candidate’s favor. When he picked up the phone, Baker writes in his new memoir, “I answered with a smile. ‘Good evening, Mr. President-Elect.’”2

Baker is so famous for his service as secretary of state that it can be easy to forget that he has spent the better part of his thirty years in the public eye not as a diplomat but as a sought-after, and cunning, political operative. When Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 reelection campaign against Jimmy Carter was flagging under the chairmanship of Rogers Morton, Ford asked Baker—at that point with barely a year’s experience in national politics, as the number-two man in the Commerce Department—to take over as campaign chairman. That was the first of five presidential campaigns Baker led. Likewise, in his four-plus years as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff between 1981 and 1985, Baker, while certainly immersed in policymaking, spent much of his time putting out political fires:

One of my major responsibilities was to protect the president. The chief of staff is, among other things, a catcher of javelins aimed at the president—by political adversaries, by the press, and—surprisingly, perhaps—by members of his own political party. Those last kind come in from close range and are usually unexpected.

Baker was named Reagan’s treasury secretary in 1985, and he became secretary of state in 1989, thanks to George H.W. Bush, the old friend and tennis doubles partner whom he had helped elect president. They were eventful times—the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the end of apartheid in South Africa, China’s massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, Slobodan Milosevic’s war in the Balkans, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Baker’s doggedly realist approach to foreign policy served the country well at times—restructuring Europe after the collapse of the East, building the coalition to repel Hussein’s invasion—and quite badly on other occasions, most notably in the Balkans (“we don’t have a dog in that fight”). He left the post prematurely—when Bush called on him to invigorate his 1992 reelection campaign, Baker found it “hard to leave the best job I’d ever had” but “could not say no to my friend.” He is polite about it in his new memoir “Work Hard, Study…and Keep Out of Politics!”, but one needn’t read very hard between the lines to see that the man who had finally, after all the years of messy political work, earned the right to think of himself as a statesman resented returning once again to the rank of mere fixer.

It becomes obvious to the reader of this memoir that whether Baker, now seventy-six, will be remembered as statesman or political hired gun is a matter of great concern to him. By his own admission, Florida looms large in this question—as indeed it should. In this brusquely self-laudatory memoir that is almost wholly lacking in introspection, Baker reports one exchange that is strikingly out of character with the rest of the book and that seems to have pricked his conscience just a bit. After he accepted the job of leading the Florida recount strategy, he writes, he had a conversation with Robert Strauss, a fellow Texan and old Democratic fixer in his own right. Strauss warned him: “You’re going to get hurt by this. Florida is going to be a tough legal and political brawl that will be very emotional with both sides. It could diminish your aura as a statesman.” Twenty-three pages later, he returns to the Strauss quote, asking whether Strauss was right. On the page, he announces himself satisfied that Florida was a “unique and historic event” and that he was “proud to have been able to play a successful part in it.” But it seems clear that Strauss rattled him. And his current efforts concerning Iraq suggest that he was waiting for an opportunity to seize once again the mantle of statesmanship, to demonstrate that he could, after all, put country before party and the fate of two nations before that of a president he did so much to put in office.

The young Baker had little need for introspection—his life, which he discusses in this volume for the first time (his previous memoir covered only his years at the State Department), was shaped for him by a heritage that he embraced without apparent reservation. Born in 1930, he was in fact the fourth, not third, James A. Baker in his family.3 His great-grandfather was an Alabama Scotsman who went to Houston in 1852 after the death of his first wife. He became a friend of General Sam Houston and eventually joined the law firm that came to bear, and still bears, the family name, Baker, Botts.

Grandfather, called “Captain” Baker, achieved greater fame still. At a time when Houston began growing rapidly owing to the discovery of oil, the Captain sat on the boards of banks, utility companies, and railroads; by protecting the estate of William Marsh Rice after Rice was murdered by men who wanted to steal his fortune, he also helped in endowing the institute that became Rice University. The book’s infelicitous title was the gruff Captain’s favorite admonition to the young associates who joined the firm. Baker’s father, a “strict disciplinarian” who rarely indulged the children save for the private rail car he often hired to take the family to the Texas–Texas A&M game, had an axiom of his own: “Prior preparation prevents poor performance.” These were the Five Ps, and Baker III, as he reminds us here and there, has lived by them.

His every intention was to follow the Captain’s credo as well, and, for the first forty years of his life, he did so. Like his father, he went to Princeton, majoring in history and graduating in 1952. He joined the Marines; he’d hoped to serve in Korea, he writes, but ended up stationed in the Mediterranean. He married his first wife, Mary Stuart McHenry, an Ohio native whom he had met during a spring break in Bermuda, and went to law school in Austin. An anti-nepotism rule prevented him from joining his father at Baker, Botts (he’s a senior partner there today), so he joined another firm, Andrews, Kurth, Campbell & Bradley. Four sons arrived. “Houston,” he writes, “was my world, and I never dreamed of living anywhere else or doing anything besides being a lawyer.”

But in the pivotal event of his life to that point, in February 1970 Mary Stuart was struck down by breast cancer. The misery was compounded by the fact that he and the boys were now living in the new home that had been his wife’s dream house. Baker would come home, help his sons with their homework, then “have a drink to take my mind off things, have a second drink, and then maybe one or two more.” He needed something to do. It just so happened that the man he’d befriended years before as his doubles partner in Houston was running for the Senate that year, aiming to avenge his 1964 loss to the liberal Democrat incumbent, Ralph Yarborough. As late as 1970 Baker was still a Democrat. Almost everyone in Texas had been since Reconstruction. The Texas Democratic Party of the era was famously divided between conservatives and liberals, and Baker was very much in the conservative camp, which was, during the mid-twentieth century, segregationist, pro-business, and very anti–New Deal.4 Little imagination or effort was required, then, for him to enlist in a crusade against an outspoken liberal advocate such as Yarborough.5 Baker ran Harris County for Bush; he carried the county, and Baker was hooked.

The culture that produced Baker is pretty much the same culture, it seems fair to say, that runs our country right now. It was a culture of confident wealth, country clubs, oil speculation, and ranches of literally thousands of acres; a culture of the great outdoors, of fly-fishing, and most especially of hunting all manner of game from ducks to elk to bear where permissible. It was a place where money was measured differently than in most places (his father, he writes, had warned him that he’d never make the “really big money” practicing law); and a place, and time, where one did better not to talk too much about personal matters. When Mary Stuart was sick with cancer, Baker didn’t even tell his sons, then aged seven through fifteen, that their mother was dying (he says he regrets this profoundly). In 1973, when he decided to marry his current wife, Susan—she was a product of the same culture and had been a very close friend of Mary Stuart’s—he again shared nothing with his sons, who were, he writes, “shocked” to learn that they had suddenly acquired a new stepmother and three new stepsiblings.

This was the life Baker decided to leave when, through the intercessions of his friend George H.W. Bush, by now a Washington player, he got that job in the Commerce Department. But it was his skill as a political operative, his devotion to the Five Ps, that won him the favor of his party’s leaders. He was not a thinker—for one who yearns to be thought of in the same breath as Dean Acheson, Baker has shockingly little to say about the changing course of history. He writes at several points in the book, as if it’s a matter of great pride to him, that he reveled in the details and left the big-think to others:

  1. 1

    See Toobin’s Too Close to Call (Random House, 2001), pp. 47–48.

  2. 2

    Toobin’s version has Baker calling Bush.

  3. 3

    In a footnote, he comments that he is Baker III and not Baker IV because “the numbering didn’t start until I came along,” which still doesn’t explain anything.

  4. 4

    Baker says nothing of his own racial attitudes in those days. In his State Department memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War & Peace, 1989–1992 (Putnam, 1995), he notes in passing that his father considered the New Deal “tantamount to socialism” and that he, as a youth, had memorized a piece of anti-Roosevelt doggerel that he would recite for the amusement of his parents and their friends.

  5. 5

    As it turned out, Bush, a sitting congressman at the time from the Houston area, would not run against Yarborough, but against the conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who upset Yarborough in the May primary. Bentsen went on to defeat Bush in November.

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