The bygone era of James Baker’s Washington

Husband-and-wife duo Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have written an exhaustive portrait of a man whose career contrasts strikingly with present-day Washington

So many books have been written about President Donald Trump and his inner circle that it often feels impossible trying to keep up with just a fraction of them. In the past month alone, readers have been bombarded with a cavalcade of new tomes, from Bob Woodward’s Rage to Michael Cohen’s Disloyal to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s Melania and Me.

So a new book about James A. Baker III, the Zelig-like Republican statesman whose distinguished career spanned some of the most consequential decades of the 20th century and beyond, may arrive as something of a palliative for those who yearn to immerse themselves in a period of American politics largely devoid of the intense partisan division and intra-party rancor that have come to define recent years.

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, by the media power couple Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, is an exhaustively reported, authoritative biography — to be released on September 29 — of a man whose protean trajectory represents something of a lost art in the nation’s capital: dealmaking. 

“Baker always longed to be a statesman, not a hack,” his biographers write, and his long tenure in politics — he ran no fewer than five presidential campaigns and served, among other roles, as chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan and as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush — was a testament to that ambition. 

“We thought it was, really, a way to write a big and sweeping book about Washington in this period of time that is now pretty clearly past,” Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker, told Jewish Insider in a recent joint interview with Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times who has no relation to his subject.

That wasn’t exactly by design, at least not at first. Baker and Glasser began working on their book back in 2013, when President Barack Obama was just beginning his second term in the White House and two years before Trump would announce his longshot bid for the presidency. 

At the time, they write in the introduction, the book seemed like an escape from a moment in which Washington gridlock was already a reality. But when Trump took office, the project took on a level of urgency they had not initially anticipated.

“Trump is sort of the antithesis of everything that Baker stood for,” Peter Baker said. “Baker, whatever his flaws, believed in government as a force for good, he believed in integrity, he believed in dignity. He believed in working with the other side even though he would eviscerate them during elections. He was a fierce partisan. He was no softy — ask Michael Dukakis or Al Gore. But then, when the election was over, he believed in sitting down with people to come up with solutions. He didn’t want to sit there and just make points. He wanted to get things done.”

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An éminence grise of sorts, the Texan-born Baker, whose story has never been told in book form outside of his two memoirs, arrived late to politics at 45, but had a hand in many of the most important events of the last half-century, including the 1976 contested Republican convention, the beginnings of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the reunification of Germany, the Gulf War and the Middle East peace talks in Madrid. 

Indeed, it is hard to find many important events between Watergate and the end of the Cold War in which Baker did not play a role. Even after his retirement, he occupied influential positions, serving as George W. Bush’s chief legal advisor during the 2000 Florida recount and leading the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission formed in 2006 to take stock of the Iraq War.

Baker’s run, however, was not without its controversies. His relationship with the American Jewish community and with supporters of Israel, for instance, has always been somewhat vexed. 

Baker, who was seen as an Arabist, clashed with Israel’s leaders during his time as secretary of state, going so far as to ban Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then the deputy foreign minister, from the State Department because of a critical comment Netanyahu had made with regard to American foreign policy. 

Infamously, Baker is believed to have said “Fuck the Jews” in a 1992 Oval Office meeting, adding, “They didn’t vote for us anyway.” 

But Baker claims in the book that his quote has been distorted and was taken out of context. According to the biography, a version of the quote was originally brought to light by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who, in his role as a tabloid columnist for The New York Post, reported that Baker had said “F—’em. They didn’t vote for us” in response to a critique of his approach to Israel. 

“After ‘they,’ Koch or his editor inserted the words ‘the Jews’ in brackets to explain what Baker presumably meant,” Baker and Glasser write. “As the quote spread, it would be repeated by others without the brackets, shortened to ‘Fuck the Jews,’ an even cruder version than Koch originally alleged.”

Baker recalls the White House meeting differently, averring that his comment came in the context of a heated policy conversation. When someone in the room mentioned that AIPAC wouldn’t like whatever was up for discussion, Baker remembers shooting back, “Screw them, they don’t vote for us.” Baker tells his biographers that the uncouth remark was meant to be directed at the public affairs group — as “a political comment, not an antisemitic comment, not a slur.”

“That was something I learned in doing this,” said Glasser. “We all remember the shorthand version, so I found that detail fascinating. Even the allegation was wrong.”

Still, Baker’s offhand comment, even if distorted, has stuck to him through the years, cementing the notion that he was, if not anti-Israel, then perhaps antisemitic. 

Recently, that idea was given new life when Baker — working as a foreign policy adviser for Jeb Bush’s short-lived presidential campaign — addressed a 2015 J Street conference, which rankled a number of high-profile Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson.

If anything, Baker’s appearance at the conference of a left-wing Israel lobbying group was a demonstration of how far mainstream Republicans have veered from his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say his biographers, who do not believe Baker was anti-Israel even if he adopted a tough posture toward the Jewish state and opposed Israeli settlements. 

“It’s a measure of how much domestic U.S. politics have shifted in this time that that was a Republican position,” said Glasser, noting that Baker’s views on Israel once reflected the Republican Party line. “Look at where President Trump is today on this.”

Baker had little interest in brokering a Middle East peace deal when he became secretary of state. He simply regarded the issue as too intractable. But after the Gulf War, he saw an opportunity to bank on the goodwill the U.S. had garnered within the Arab community and set out to negotiate. 

“That shows you how Baker calculates these things,” Peter Baker told JI. “You only move into a situation like the Middle East peace area if you have the capacity to make a difference. He thought he did.”

As Glasser puts it, Baker “expended an enormous effort” to facilitate the Madrid Conference of October 1991, which brought Israel together with its neighbors, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, in a way that nobody had done before. 

In the lead-up to the conference, Baker spent “23 days straight on the road,” according to the book, “the second-longest single trip taken by any secretary of state in modern times, just behind Henry Kissinger’s marathon shuttle diplomacy in the region during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.”

Baker possessed an unusually keen insight into what the various interlocutors might need, deciding, for example, that what former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad required was just to talk. “You’d have these three, four or five, six-hour sessions in which you try not to drink too much tea because you know that he would sit there and refuse to let anybody go to the bathroom,” Peter Baker said. “It was kind of a manhood contest, and he understood that that’s the way Assad works. He understood the psychology of the other person.”

Despite his initial resistance to peace discussions, Baker regards his involvement in the negotiations as a key part of his legacy, according to his biographers, who add that his biggest disappointment, in looking back on his time in office, was that he lost the chance to personally build on the Madrid Conference after Bush failed to secure a second term. 

“I think he feels like that was the cost of their defeat in 1992,” Peter Baker said.

***

As part of their research, Glasser and Baker conducted a number of in-person interviews with their subject, now 90, along with all eight of his children and a nanny who was more than 100 years old. He allowed them unfettered access to his archives and personally gave them a detailed tour of Houston, where he was born and raised. (The former statesman contracted COVID-19 in August, but Baker and Glasser told JI that they have heard he is on the mend.)

“It was, I think, typical of the meticulous preparation that Baker was known for in his heyday in Washington that, when we got in the car with him to drive around Houston, we saw that he was carrying a legal pad,” Glasser recalled. “He immediately started talking with his aide, who was with us, saying, ‘You know, when we drove our practice route, I didn’t like how it was, and so I’d like to rearrange some of the order.’ I realized at that time, amazingly enough, that Baker had not only written down everywhere he wanted to take us — he had actually practiced for this interview with us, which I thought was just something that really typified him.”

Baker and Glasser, who recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, met in 1998 at The Washington Post, during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, after which they served as co-bureau chiefs in Moscow for the Post. Their first book together, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution, was published in 2005. Baker is the author of four other political books, and Glasser was formerly editor at Politico and Foreign Policy

Before the 2016 election, they were living in Jerusalem, where Baker had been stationed as bureau chief for the Times. But when Trump won, the assignment was cut short. “We were really just starting to settle in when things got turned around on us, which is a shame,” Baker said. “We expected to be there — hoped to be there — for three years. We were excited about spending time there and getting to know the place better. That’s one more consequence of the Trump election.”

“We found ourselves, to a certain extent, as foreign correspondents here in our own country,” Glasser said of their return to home to Washington, where they now live.

But as they reported on the Trump administration, Glasser and Baker could also find at least some refuge from the current moment in the subject of their biography, who they came to admire over the course of their seven-year writing project. 

“He’s an extremely polished and engaging and likable guy, and it was his great skill as a diplomat that he managed to be different things to different people,” said Glasser. “There’s a great story in the book about him working in the halls of Congress one day and talking [about] the opera with Chris Dodd from Connecticut, and then going next door and laying on the tobacco-spitting, cowboy-boot-wearing charm with a Southern senator.”

Still, they were careful not to idealize Baker or the time he came from.

“We shouldn’t romanticize the past, but it also was a Washington where the two sides could work together at times to do important things,” Peter Baker said. “You know, when Reagan was president and Baker was chief of staff, they never had control of the House the entire time. So they had no choice but to work with the Democrats. And so Baker sat down with the other party and worked out a deal to salvage social security in 1983. Nobody’s done it on that level since. He sat down with the Democrats to overhaul the tax code in 1986. Nobody’s done that ever since.”

“I think that you see, through Trump, the ultimate end of the James Baker era,” Peter Baker said.

Now that Baker and Glasser have finished their biography, they are working on a new book about Trump, to be published next year. At first, they saw the impeachment trial as a narrative construct, but in recent months they have been reconsidering what approach they will take. It all depends, of course, on the results of the upcoming election. “We’ll have a little more clarity by November or by December,” Baker said, “whenever we learn of where things are going.”

In the meantime, they believe there are lessons to be drawn from their biography of an unusual man who once presided over a Washington that no longer seems to exist. 

“What, if anything, can you learn from a period of time in which the institutions of our government and our political system seemed more effective than they are now?” Glasser said. “That is, I think, one question that is certainly posed by this era in which Baker operated. But it’s also clear that he had a unique skill set that made him uniquely able to take on a series of the top jobs in Washington — the most powerful positions, arguably, in the world — in a way that no one really had done before or since.”

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