James Baker

James Baker

James Baker

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 17 2000 8:30 PM

James Baker

The Bush family janitor. 

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The Wise Men have arrived. They have traveled by night from the west to save the Son (one junior or the other), bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and chad. The Gore campaign disinterred former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and shipped him cross-country to rescue the veep. George W. Bush countered by dispatching a former secretary of state of his own, James Baker.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Dubya already depends on dad's other advisers to tell him what to think. So it's unsurprising he finally called on Baker, the Bushie di tutti Bushies, for help. The Florida rescue mission is redemption for the 70-year-old Baker. Barbara Bush and George W. blamed Baker for running President Bush's 1992 campaign into the ground. (Barbara reportedly called Baker "The Invisible Man" for his lackadaisical effort in the closing weeks.) But now that the Bushes are desperate again, Baker has been summoned from obscurity—advising merchant banks, negotiating for the United Nations in Western Sahara—to save them one more time.

Baker's parachute mission has prompted the expected outpouring of gush. Gov. Bush tongue-bathed him for his "impeccable credentials and integrity." The Baker-philic press echoed the praise. Baker has responded with his usual pomposity. He has gone before the nation to warn us that Gore's vote challenges are embarrassing the United States abroad, that the dragged-out election is a "danger to democracy," and that Gore should bow out for "the good of the country."

The Bush campaign is counting on Baker's image as a statesman to advance Dubya's claim to the presidency. Don't you dare call Baker a mere politician. The Washington establishment considers him the greatest of all Republican mandarins. A child of the Texas aristocracy, he prepped in the East and graduated Princeton, then returned to practice corporate law in Houston. In 1970, he signed up as Bush the Father's right-hand man, a job he has held—on and off, often bitterly—ever since.

Baker fuses patrician chill with Texas saltiness: He's a hyperefficient control freak dressed up in cowboy boots and chaw. He rocketed through the political hierarchy from President Ford's undersecretary of commerce to Reagan's chief of staff to secretary of the treasury to Bush's secretary of state. He was nicknamed the Velvet Hammer and gained a reputation for skillful tactics and honest negotiation. With the smugness that only the combination of Texas and the Ivy League can produce, Baker settled for an aide's role because he knew he was better than the pols he served.

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But Baker's vaunted integrity is largely a euphemism for his real gift: the ability to keep his hands clean. Part of this is PR. Baker is a world-class flatterer of reporters. He cultivated the journalists covering him and leaked copiously. He got fantastic coverage—especially at the State Department—frequently at the expense of his boss.

Baker also proved masterful at insulating himself from trouble. In the 1980 campaign, Baker prepped Reagan for debates with a briefing book lifted from the Carter campaign. But Baker bore no responsibility for "Briefingate," laying the scandal off on William Casey. As treasury secretary in the late '80s, Baker didn't act against the emerging S & L crisis, leaving the mess for his successor. When Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988, campaign chairman Baker made sure to tell reporters that he disagreed with Quayle's selection. Baker supervised Bush's savage '88 campaign but allowed Lee Atwater to take credit for it, thus ducking accountability for its nastiness. As secretary of state, Baker rightly won credit for constructing the Gulf War coalition, but he never shouldered any blame for the shortsighted policy that encouraged Iraqi adventurousness in the first place. (Baker allowed the American ambassador to take the fall for U.S. friendliness toward Saddam Hussein.)

Despite Baker's statesman persona, he will probably be remembered for being what he hates: a handler. He had a few modest achievements at State and Treasury but never had any vision for the jobs beyond his next tactical move. He lost his only run for office—Texas attorney general in 1978—and abandoned the idea of running for president in 1996 before the campaign started.

Instead, Baker's legacy is as paramedic for dying campaigns. In 1976, he was recruited to resuscitate Ford's campaign and managed to stave off Reagan's primary challenge and nearly upset Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Baker salvaged Bush's career by folding Bush's presidential campaign over the candidate's objections. Bush's withdrawal allowed him to remain a viable running mate for Reagan. In 1984, Baker orchestrated Reagan's "morning in America" romp to re-election. Four years later, Bush persuaded him to quit Treasury to rescue his flagging presidential campaign. And in 1992, Bush dragged him away from State for more campaign CPR.

It's hard not to suspect that, at some deep level, Baker remains disappointed with himself. He hates his Mr. Fix-It reputation. He reportedly wanted to vomit when Time put him on the cover as Bush's "handler." He loathed traveling with Bush because he was treated like "a goddamn butler." He called his campaign work for Ford "demeaning."

Yet he can't seem to stay away. The Florida mess may give Baker the satisfaction of knowing that the Bushes can't live without him. But schlepping to Florida to clean up another Bush mess surely makes him seethe. He wanted to be one of the powers that be. Instead he's America's most famous janitor.