What It’s Like Writing a Book About Jim Baker—”The 20th Century’s Savviest DC Power Player”

From a Washingtonian interview by Benjamin Wofford of Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, authors of a new book about James A. Baker III titled The Man Who Ran Washington:

Journalism power-couple Susan Glasser, a staff writer at the New Yorker, and Peter Baker, the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, have cowritten The Man Who Ran Washington, a biography of former Secretary of State and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, arguably the 20th century’s savviest DC power player. . . .

In an interview edited for length and clarity, they talk about what it was like collaborating on their new book and where they think their subject fits in modern American history.

You worked together on a previous book, Kremlin Rising. What’s it like collaborating?

Glasser: Well, the good news is we’re still married, and actually about to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

Baker: It’s a challenge obviously for any two authors working on a book together, but it’s also a force multiplier. Susan and I met as journalists to begin with—she was my editor at the Washington Post. So we established who was in charge from that experience. Once you had that set in the beginning, it’s clearer from there.

I couldn’t believe how many bipartisan deals Baker orchestrated. Was that due to his talents, or was it the era?

Glasser: Jim Baker [is] the story not only of this particular individual but also of Washington from the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War. This is a definitive period in our national politics in which Baker essentially was a dominant figure, both terms of politics and in terms of policy. That simply isn’t possible today. Can you imagine someone filling the roles of both Karl Rove and Henry Kissinger today? It’s inconceivable.

Both Peter and I came away reinforced with the idea that individuals do matter and that history is not inevitable. You look at something like how he steered Reagan’s first term as his chief of staff in the White House, or how he was able to make certain deals by seeing his way through to do something like tax reform. . . .

Baker: It’s the marriage of man and moment—you have to somebody with Baker’s skill set and willingness to work across the aisle, and you also have to have an atmosphere in which that’s possible. In the tax reform case you had Democrats as well as Republicans making this promise that they were going to overhaul the tax code, and both sides saw an advantage in doing that. Today it’s so hard to see two parties coming together and recognizing common interest. The word compromise is seen as a dirty word; compromise today means caving in, it means cowardice, it means concession.

So there’s no question that Baker brought a particular gift to that moment, but it was a moment that was open for a Baker to come along. We had this question all along: Could Baker work in today’s environment? The story is about how Washington has changed as much as anything else. . . .

I was surprised just how influential Baker was in Bush v. Gore. Would it have gone differently without Baker?

Glasser: The key to Baker in many ways is that he’s a congenital winner—he was in politics to win and he saw that as his job, and his assignment, in the 2000 recount. There’s this scene that he recounts with pride of meeting with Warren Christopher, the former Democratic Secretary of State, appointed to sort of negotiate things for Al Gore. Many Democrats said to us that they knew Gore was toast as soon Baker got involved. Democrats know very well what his skill and capabilities were, which is part of why Barack Obama is an admirer of Jim Baker.

Baker: I would add one thing about the 2000 recount, which is fascinating: He just pummeled, and basically overwhelmed, Christopher during that recount period. And yet afterward, he and Christopher ended up chairing a commission on war powers together. Imagine Robby Mook and Kellyanne Conway getting together to do joint policy today. . . .

It’s striking how closely Baker’s life resembled the mythological persona Donald Trump has manufactured for himself: a compulsive winner and master dealmaker who comes  to Washington as an outsider with no particular worldview. Is Baker the guy people thought they were getting when they voted for Trump?

Baker: It’s a great question, because Trump sort of presents himself as the great dealmaker. And in most of his time in office, and his biography, that’s overstated. There’s a couple of things he can call deals—the new NAFTA, criminal justice reform. But even in criminal justice reform he didn’t really negotiate, he simply accepted it, and the new NAFTA thing is probably overrated. . . .

And Baker’s not a disrupter. Chaos is not his operating theory. For Trump, it’s less about the deal than it is about shaking things up and grabbing attention and making conflict. Baker tried to minimize conflict. Trump seeks it out.

Glasser: Which just makes Baker’s struggle over what to do about Trump all the more painful. That was our backdrop to our last few years of conversations with Secretary Baker. He is a congenital winner and he is a believer in the Republican party and also the foreign policy that he helped establish. He told us that he thought Donald Trump was nuts. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to vote against him or to publicly work against him.

The wrenching question for Baker—whether to vote for Trump—foregrounds the entire book. In the end, he decides he will vote for Trump. And apparently he’s going to vote for Trump again. How did he reach that decision?

Baker: When Baker was flirting with Trump back in 2016, his friend Tom Brokaw calls him up and says, “You don’t want to do this. You have spent your life building a legacy of serious statesmanship, and the last thing you want to do is get in bed with this guy.” Baker took it in, he heard it. But his compromise was: Okay, I won’t endorse him publicly, even though I’m going to vote for him. . . .

Glasser: One word for it would be “nuance.” I’m sure there are less charitable words that can be used for that approach. We pushed Baker over and over and over again on the question of Trump, and his discomfort was real. His personal judgement was clear—he was unequivocal and unsparing in that—but at the same time, the seeds of some of the Republican Party that we see today were growing and germinating in the Reagan and Bush years, when Baker was at the height of his power. Often he was on the other side of those forces, where he was correctly seen as a voice of pragmatic moderation who tended to want to work with Democrats and get the job done rather than being a strident ideologue. But I think it comes down to his profound belief about the nature of power and politics. It’s just his view that you don’t have any power if you’re on the outside pissing in. . . .

Also see James Mann’s review of the James Baker book, The Man Who Ran Washington, in the Washington Post.

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