Press: Where is Jim Baker when we need him?
In Washington, political biographies are a dime a dozen. My bookshelves are packed with them and, probably, so are yours. Most of them — boring, highly selective, self-congratulatory — aren’t worth reading. You only hold on to them a year or two before dumping them on some unsuspecting used book store.
But every so often a rare exception comes along. As it did this month, with publication of “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III” by the amazing husband and wife team of Peter Baker (no relation), chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, and Susan Glasser, staff writer for The New Yorker. If you’re looking for a book to convince you that politics is still a noble profession where good things can actually happen, and where compromise is not a four-letter word, this is it.
Baker’s story is, in fact, a lesson for our times. Its title, “The Man Who Ran Washington” is no exaggeration. While James Carville or Kellyanne Conway may be celebrated for running one presidential campaign, Baker ran five of them. He served as secretary of State, secretary of the Treasury, and under secretary of Commerce. He was White House chief of staff to both President Reagan and President George H. W. Bush. He came from Texas and literally “ran Washington” without ever becoming president himself, even though he was smarter and a better politician than any of the four presidents he served.
Publication of the Baker biography could not have been better timed, because never has the Republican Party needed someone like Jim Baker as bad as it does today, with Donald Trump’s ham-handed, if not treasonous, attempts to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election. We remember 2000. With his election results in doubt, George W. Bush called on distinguished attorney and senior statesman Jim Baker. In 2020, with his election results in no doubt, Trump called on disgraced attorney and media clown Rudy Giuliani. That alone tells you all you need to know about Trump’s chances: zero. There’s no doubt what Baker would advise Trump because he’s already done so: “We never said don’t count the votes. That’s a very hard decision to defend in a democracy.”
Most refreshing about the Baker biography, it’s a reminder of the days, not so long ago, when the primary objective of leaders of both parties was to get things done for the American people. That was Baker’s entire creed. He was a doer. As his co-biographers point out, “his doctrine was deal-making. Real deals, ones that stuck, deals that changed the world.” Summing up his career, Baker told them: “The point of holding power is to get things done and accomplish things.”
In 1983, for example, defying the odds, Baker engineered a deal between Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) to extend and strengthen Social Security. In 1986, he brokered the Tax Reform Act, signed by Reagan, which lowered taxes on individuals but contained the biggest tax increases on businesses in history.
How different from today, where the mission of the Republican Party, as proclaimed and practiced by both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is to stand in the way of progress and take action on no front unless they can do so with Republican votes only. America needs politicians like James Baker now more than ever.
Sadly, the Baker story ends with a big disappointment. It’s not surprising that Baker voted for Donald Trump in 2016. What is surprising, indeed shocking, is that he also voted for Trump in 2020. But then again, nobody’s perfect. Not even Jim Baker.
Press is host of “The Bill Press Pod.” He is author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.”
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