James A. Baker III was the quintessential loyal confidant who deferred publicly to the presidents he served.
But the Texan’s adroit use of power put him at center stage during the tumultuous 1980s and early ’90s, from domestic issues to the end of the Cold War.
It was Baker’s ability to see what could be accomplished and manage the forces at play, concludes a new documentary, that made him a standout as President Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff and treasury secretary, and President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state.
“James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work,” narrated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw and airing March 24 on PBS, reveals much of the political gamesmanship of an oil and gas lawyer who, mid-life, became a successful Republican operative.
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It all started with a friendship, not politics. Baker and George H.W. Bush were frequent tennis partners in Houston.
It was Baker’s grandfather, a partner of Houston’s Baker Botts LLP law firm, who would say, “Work hard, study and keep out of politics.” It was advice that the future political guru didn’t take except to make it the title of his 2006 memoir.
“I was led to believe that politics was sort of a scuzzy business,” Baker, 84, says in the film.
Baker’s life changed when his wife died in 1970, leaving him with four young boys.
“I’d go drown my sorrows with a couple of stiff drinks, or more than a couple,” he says.
At that point, Bush, a Texas congressman at the time, asked Baker to manage his 1970 Senate campaign as a way to get past his grief. Bush lost, but Baker had a new calling.
With a plug from his friend, Baker went to work for President Gerald Ford and ran his 1976 presidential campaign. He managed to crush a threat from the right from Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California, but Ford lost the general election.
Once again, Bush beckoned.
Baker managed his 1980 presidential nomination bid, which Reagan won. But the documentary, written, produced and directed by veteran filmmaker Eric Stange, reveals how Baker positioned Bush to be Reagan’s choice as vice presidential running mate.
And when Reagan won, he chose an unlikely chief of staff – Baker.
He worked hard to pass the Reagan agenda. “Sometimes it’s just horse-trading,” says Baker. CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl, then the network’s White House correspondent, says in the film that Baker prevailed by making compromises, but not appearing to: “It was brilliant.”
Baker became secretary of the treasury in 1985 and a prime mover in securing a rewrite of the tax laws. He also spearheaded Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign in a nasty election against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts.
“Politics is a blood sport,” Baker says.
Then the Texan got the job that he’d wanted all along: secretary of state.
As the communist bloc in Europe crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Baker managed U.S. efforts to unify Germany.
“Baker brought about a strategic revolution at the center of Europe without producing an enormous crisis,” said Henry Kissinger.
The documentary all but ignores Bush’s failed 1992 re-election campaign, led by a reluctant Baker. Former President Bill Clinton, the victor, thinks that Baker’s masterful job leading the Republican Party’s recount effort in the 2000 election was retribution. George W. Bush, son of his friend, became president.
George H.W. Bush appears in the documentary talking about Baker, but, inexplicably, in an interview from 1995.
Even now, Baker remains a trusted adviser to the family, serving as one of Jeb Bush’s policy consultants as the former Florida governor plans his own presidential bid next year.