Better Late Than Never

James Baker
James Baker; drawing by David Levine

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.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.