When Washington worked

By Samuel Moore-Sobel


Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been able to dedicate more time to reading. One of my favorite books of 2020 was The Man Who Ran Washington, a biography of James A. Baker, by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser.

“Any chronicle of the modern presidency would find [James] Baker at the heart of virtually every chapter” the authors write. James Baker was at the helm of five Republican presidential campaigns between 1976 and 1992. He served as White House chief of staff, secretary of the treasury, and secretary of state. He also shaped policies and world events that still affect our lives today.

James Baker’s time as secretary of state was likely one of the most exciting times to serve in the role. The Fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union were just some of the world events dominating the headlines during those heady days. As the Soviet Union crumbled, James Baker helped ensure that the new world order transitioned peacefully. 

He mastered the art of relationships, building a strong friendship with his contemporary in the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze. This led to an unprecedented alliance between the United States and the U.S.S.R. when it came to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He and Shevardnadze gave a joint press conference in Moscow condemning Hussain’s invasion. “The Cold War breathed its last at an airport terminal on the outskirts of Moscow,” James Baker wrote afterward.

Baker was also instrumental in assembling an international coalition to wage the Gulf War, and was integral in arranging the Madrid Conference in 1991, which gathered Israeli, Palestinian, and other officials from Middle Eastern countries, serving as an important first step toward brokering peace agreements in the Middle East. “I’m going to the White House to help the president get reelected,” James Baker said, “but then I’m coming back and we will do the peace treaties.” He never got the chance.

Regardless of political leanings, I think we can all learn from the leadership style of James Baker. His work ethic was unmatched. During his efforts to secure support for the Gulf War, the authors write that James Baker traveled 100,000 miles in just ten weeks. He was apparently known for repeating the phrase, “Prior preparation prevents poor performance.” But he wasn’t necessarily fully prepared to take on the roles in which he served. The authors write that before assuming the role of treasury secretary, his only economic training consisted of a single economics course in college. Regardless, he succeeded in the role. Baker’s life is a lesson in determination and the ability to learn on the job, regardless of educational pedigree.

It also seems that Baker himself longed to hold the top job as president, even though he never won elected office. (He lost his race for Texas attorney general in 1978.) His relationship with President Bush may have sometimes been influenced by this tension. “When Baker pushed too hard,” the authors write, Bush would apparently respond by saying, “If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t President?” 

Baker himself did explore the possibility of running in 1996 but opted to remain in retirement. “I knew I could do that job,” Baker said after he left government service. “So why didn’t I run for president? Because I was too damn worn out.” Yet the rightward lurch of the Republican Party might have also influenced his decision-making. “He probably couldn’t have gotten the Republican nomination because he wasn’t far right enough,” his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Winston, said.

In today’s polarized age, Baker’s ability to work across the aisle to get things done seems all the more impressive. He knew how to influence members of Congress and world leaders to gain support, such as when he helped secure passage of the Tax Reform Bill of 1986. His success might have been a result of his penchant for compromise, likely due to his lack of deep-seated political ideology. “I didn’t have any overarching paradigm for politics,” Baker told the authors. “My view was you try to get things done.” If only those currently serving in Washington had the same perspective.

Samuel Moore-Sobel is the author of Can You See My Scars? For more, visit his website: www.samuelmoore-sobel.com.


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