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The remarkable political and diplomatic legacy of James Baker

Former Secretary of State James Baker’s distinguished career and service to every Republican president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush has elevated him to elder statesman status. Now, his life, career and legacy are examined in a new book, “The Man Who Ran Washington.” Its authors, veteran Washington, D.C., journalists Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of State James Baker's distinguished career and service to every Republican president from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush has elevated him to elder statesman status.

    His life, career, and legacy are examined in a new book, "The Man Who Ran Washington," written by two veteran Washington journalists, Susan Glasser and Peter Baker.

    And they join me now.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Now, we know — Peter Baker, we know you as the White House correspondent for The New York Times.

    Susan, we know you as a writer for "The New Yorker."

    In real life, you're married to each other.

    So, Susan, tell us, how did you decide you together wanted to write a book about somebody who has not been — held public office in more than 30 years — almost 30 years?

  • Susan Glasser:

    I think Jim Baker is a unique figure, really, of the last half-century.

    He's somebody who combines a portfolio of a Karl Rove and a Henry Kissinger. He ran five presidential campaigns, was also the secretary of state when the Cold War ended.

    And I think, for Peter and I, it was really an opportunity to write a big book about Washington from the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War, and how different it is from today, and the gridlock and dysfunction, very different from a time when Baker was famous for getting things done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Peter, I think of the phrase born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

    Jim Baker came from a prominent, wealthy family in Houston, Texas, successful lawyer. He made the jump to government and politics, found out he was very good at it.

    What was the secret? What was his secret? Why was he so good at it?

  • Peter Baker:

    At the time, basically, you — there was an opening for people who wanted to make deals, and Jim Baker was somebody who did that.

    I can't imagine him allowing a COVID relief bill that we have seen now languishing for months go unpassed so long. If he were here, and this moment were like his moment, there would have been a deal by now, because I think that he felt like he understood what the person on the other side of the table needed.

    In order to get to a place where he would get what he wanted, he had to give something to the other side. That sort of give-and-take is sort of out of fashion today. In today's zero sum politics, compromise is seen as a dirty word.

    But Jim Baker sat down with the Democrats and redid the Social Security system, sat down with Democrats and redid the tax code, sat down with Democrats, ended the Contra war, basically sat down, of course, with the Soviets and ended the Cold War in a peaceful way and reunified Germany.

    So, basically, I think that Baker was a part of an era and a class of practitioners who understood that negotiation was about getting something done, not about scoring political points.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Susan, develop that a little.

    I mean, you're — he's described as the most successful secretary of state in generations. What was it — give us an example of what he did or how he did it that will help us understand what made it work.

  • Susan Glasser:

    Well, right now is the 30th anniversary, actually, just this weekend, of the reunification of Germany.

    And I think going back and relooking at that episode for the book, you realize how, in hindsight, it may seem like, of course it was all going to work out, but it was a shock when the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989. Nobody had a plan. Nobody had a road map.

    And Jim Baker really was the one who not only came up with the plan and the framework under which he would bring in all those constituents from World War II who still were very skeptical, by the way. He had to convince the British and the French about German reunification, after having fought two World Wars, not to mention the Soviets, not to mention working with the Germans, so that they felt that their fate was not being once again determined by outside forces.

    So, this was an incredible piece of diplomacy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Peter, clearly, Jim Baker known as somebody who was all about getting things done.

    What about the Washington of today, though? You write that he's very philosophically different from President Trump. He told you, he even called it — I have seen you quoting him as saying he — he used the word crazy or nuts when he described President Trump.

    And yet he told you he's voting for President Trump. How does he — how does he square that? What does he say about the Washington of today vs. the Washington he worked in?

  • Peter Baker:

    Oh, he's very disenchanted with the way Washington works. That even preceded Trump.

    He's very, very turned off by this kind of leadership. Trump is a disrupter. Baker is about bringing people together, about solving problems. Trump enjoys creating problems. He did tell us that he thought that Trump was crazy and nuts, were the words he used.

    And he did one point say he thought he might vote for Joe Biden, and then, a couple of months later, said, no, don't say that. I'm sticking with my party, even though I think my party has moved away from me.

    So he's really wrestled with this, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is a very different time. Washington is defined by gridlock.

    But do you think anybody, Jim Baker or anybody else, could get something done in this environment?

  • Susan Glasser:

    I mean, that is a great question, because the truth is, the incentives in American politics have changed. It's not just that Washington is missing elder statesmen like Jim Baker. There are no adults left in the room. That's true. Donald Trump kicked them all out.

    But this predates Donald Trump. And I think that the political incentives have changed to make things done. And the permanent campaign, it's easier to make war, to mobilize your own side to come out and fight and vote and be permanently angry at the other side.

    So, a lot of the pressures now go against the kind of big deals. But I will say this. Individuals matter very much. Back in 1981, Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first woman on the Supreme Court. It was Jim Baker who really pushed him to do that.

    There were plenty of people around Ronald Reagan who wanted a more conservative figure. They were violently against Jim Baker. In fact, he physically blocked them from having a meeting with Ronald Reagan.

    So, his instincts mattered and made a difference as well. And I think, obviously, Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment was one of Reagan's major accomplishments.

    So, yes, Jim Baker might have made a difference. He certainly did when it was his turn in the barrel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're hearing again from President Trump that he may not agree to a peaceful transfer of power if he's not reelected.

    I just wonder what a Jim Baker would say about that.

  • Peter Baker:

    Well, I think he would be distressed by that.

    Remember, he worked for two presidents who did peacefully surrender power to rivals who beat them in elections, Jerry Ford and George H.W. Bush. This is a fundamental tenet of American democracy. And people like Baker and his generation respected that back.

    In fact, I think, basically, everybody in both parties have respected that up until now. And it's hard to imagine that we are in this position now where that's even on the table. I think he would find that very distressing.

    Baker was about order. He was about institutions. He was about norms. He was about standards and about the way government should operate, not just a constant battle for power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Susan, he was involved, integrally involved in the 2000 election recount.

    George W. Bush, at that moment, asked him to come on board and help him lead his team as he contested the election. It does make — make you wonder what Jim Baker's thinking about what's going on right now.

  • Susan Glasser:

    Well, look, he is a canny, canny tactician.

    When it was clear that Florida was too close to call and there was going to be this after, Baker got on a plane, ended up in Florida. We talked to many Democrats who, aware of his reputation, said they knew it was over as soon as Baker got there, that he was such a formidable opponent.

    But, remember, both Bush and Al Gore were prepared to accept the results of a process. They were not trying to undermine the system, but quite the opposite, were extremely worried about being seen to do so.

    And, in the end, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that made that decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Susan Glasser, Peter Baker, we thank you so much.

    The book is "The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III."

    Thank you very much. It's such a great book.

  • Susan Glasser:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Peter Baker:

    Thank you, Judy. Really appreciate it.

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