Books at Wilson | The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
The Wilson Center is pleased to host American political journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser with special guest former Secretary of State Jim Baker, as the writers introduce their new biography “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III.”
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James A. Baker III was an indispensable partner to four presidents. From the end of the Watergate scandal to the aftermath of the Cold War, no Republican won the presidency without Baker's help, or ran the White House without his advice.
Ruthlessly partisan during campaign seasons, Baker's influence as a government servant promoted pragmatism over purity, and deal-making over division. The Man Who Ran Washington is the portrait of a practitioner of lost arts in today's fractured nation. Baker's story is a tale of a power broker who influenced America for generations, in large part because he understood how to make Washington work at a time when American power and prestige shaped events around the world.
Please join Congresswoman Jane Harman as she hosts a discussion with co-authors Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, joined by Secretary of State Jim Baker.
“Jim Baker has many titles: Chief of Staff for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Reagan's Treasury Secretary, Bush's Secretary of State, manager of five presidential campaigns and an unmatched advisor to four presidents across more than a quarter century. He was also a member of the Wilson Center board from 1977 to 1998, including when he was such a big shot, overseeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War as Secretary of State... This makes him our most important board member ever. And there's no possible way I can claim that his being at the Wilson Center put him on the map. He is the map.”
“The dirtiest four-syllable word in politics is bipartisan. The business model now is blame the other side for not solving the problem, because if you work with the other side and you are bipartisan, then you get primaried.”
James A. Baker, III
“My first wife had died tragically, of course, of cancer when she was 38 years of age and the last non-family people to see her were George and Barbara Bush. And after she died, George came to me and he said, you know Bake, he said, you got to do something to take your mind off your grief. How about helping me run for the senate? And I said, ‘Well, George, that's a great idea except for two things: number one, I don't know anything about politics... and number two I’m a Democrat.’ And he said, well you know we can take care of that latter problem. And we did, as Jane has said, that's when I converted to the Republican Party.”
“The responsible center in American politics has disappeared. It's gone. You know there aren't any moderates anymore on either side, and that's a real tragedy for the country and for our democracy.”
“When I was Chief of Staff at the White House, we had Ronald Reagan who, while people thought he was a hardcore ideologue, really wasn't. He was quite pragmatic and he knew that we judge our presidents on the basis of what they get accomplished for the American people. And we had a leader of the other side who wanted to get things accomplished—Tip O'Neill. And you know, without Tip, we would never have been able to reform the tax code. Without Tip, we would never have been able to restore the solvency of social security… so it takes two. Both sides have to be ready to do it or willing to do it.”
“That guy [Mikhail Gorbachev] should go down in history as a real hero because he's the one that made the fundamental decision not to use force to keep the Soviet empire together… We worked very closely with him. It was it was a seesaw thing for a while because both of us, both Gorbachev and Bush, were being harassed by their hardcore wings, by their hardcore supporters, not to give away things. Not to compromise too much, be careful, you know. And so we both had that hurdle to overcome.”
“I think we don't run the world anymore because of the political dysfunction we're experiencing in this country. American leadership has diminished and has almost disappeared and I think that's very, very regrettable.”
“I consider my home away from home to be the Wilson Center and I wish we could be doing this in person the way we have for previous books.”
“We thank Secretary Baker for joining us today and especially for opening up his life to us these last seven years. He can tell you all the ways we got the book wrong, he's not responsible for any of it, but he was exceedingly generous with his time and his cooperation opening his archives and opening his life to us.”
“And we couldn't have found, I think, a more compelling subject because we wanted to write a book that was about a person who has been at the center of so many things from, really the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War, you couldn't really find anything that didn't have Jim Baker involved in some way or another. And we also thought his story told us a lot about Washington, about how Washington worked at the time and how it really doesn't work as well today, and so I think that was one of the things that really got us going.”
“Talking about those deals that you [James] made with Democrats and you know, wondering whether anything like that is still possible today… The example I've cited is the failure to produce a COVID relief bill since April. And I have to say, even though I don't think—I think it'd be very hard for you to be the Chief of Staff in this White House—but I still hold out the idea that you would never let them get away with not passing a bill at a moment of such economic crisis.”
“One great story about that, about the West Germans that Secretary Baker worked with, is that he also had to perform high stakes diplomacy between the two of them. Because they were both instrumental in it, but they didn't talk to each other!”
“One of the shocks of the last decade is realizing that the inconceivable happened, because we did not allow ourselves to have a big enough sense of what the possibilities were. And you know, I include myself in this. I mean, I'm a sort of a child of that 1989 generation, right, you know, this was the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Secretary Baker was presiding was the year I graduated from college and I think what we had as a framework for this period of time was that it was sort of a march of history toward, you know, perhaps the end of history, but certainly towards greater and greater democracy and freedom. And you know, we're now in a situation where according to Freedom House, the level of democracy in the world has gone backwards for 12 straight years. So I think it was a failure of imagination to project that this moment in time, which turned out to be an outlier actually, was an enormous exception to the rule of where the U.S. ranked in a world of competing powers.
James A. Baker III
Former U.S. Secretary of State and Baker Institute Honorary Chair
Chief White House Correspondent, The New York Times