ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
On this chapter of our Bookshelf I am joined by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and co-author with Susan Glasser of The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III. It’s a biography of the former secretary of state and it was released on Tuesday. From the Reagan revolution to the 2000 recount, Jim Baker was certainly a key player in Washington. As chief of staff in the Reagan White House, he wielded many, many – he wielded power over many decisions. He also believed in bipartisanship, in bringing adversaries to the table. He put all these dealmaking skills to use as secretary of state, steering the United States through the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War. He was also a Republican kingmaker who helped Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush win the White House. Peter and Susan wrote that, quote, “For a quarter century, every Republican president relied on Baker to manage his campaign, his White House, his world…He was Washington’s indispensable man.”
Peter, I’m so glad you can be here. I was looking forward to seeing Susan, your wife and co-author. Due to technical difficulties we weren’t able to have her on this Bookshelf episode tonight, but she will be back on Washington Week soon, to be sure. But Peter, congratulations to you both.
PETER BAKER: Thank you, and I know she would love to be here. I’m very sorry about the technical issues. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Don’t worry, we’re all doing the best we can.
Peter, I heard you talk about a few days ago how you decided to write this book. It’s been a years-long project. What brought you to it? What animated you as you pursued this project along with all of your other work for The New York Times?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, we started this project back seven years ago and I think the idea at the time was that Baker’s story was so interesting given the dysfunction we saw in Washington at that point. This was still Obama’s presidency, but it was a very dysfunctional time and we thought that Baker’s experiences at the height of power in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s was a useful, you know, tale to go back and revisit and a useful time to sort of revisit in Washington. That’s only become more so, right? During the process of writing this book we saw Trump come along and we saw him rise to power and now govern for four years, and the contrast between Trump’s Washington and Baker’s Washington was so stark, so striking that is felt to us that the book was even more timely and more relevant than before.
MR. COSTA: But, Peter, is it really that different? Stylistically I see your point, but you write about in your book how Secretary Baker is not necessarily a Never Trumper; he has a complicated relationship with President Trump and he may even vote for him, is that right?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, he does have a complicated relationship, like a lot of Republicans. His story in some ways in a parable for the Republican establishment that doesn’t like Trump, doesn’t respect him in a lot of ways. Secretary Baker, in our – we had five years of conversations with him about this and he would use words like “crazy” and “nuts.” I mean, he’s definitely not a fan of the president, doesn’t think he’s doing the right job. At the same time, he’s a – he says I’m a Republican and he has stuck with his party, and I think that’s a testament to how tribal this moment is and how much the establishment of the Republican Party has come to accommodate themselves to a leader that they’re not particularly fond of but who is, in fact, right now in charge of the party. What Jared Kushner told me a couple weeks ago is the hostile takeover of the Republican Party, it’s a hostile takeover, then, of Jim Baker’s Republican Party.
But I think about we see just this week alone there’s a Baker story for almost everything. So you saw President Trump nominate a strong conservative for the Supreme Court. Jim Baker helped the first – Republican president put the first woman on the Supreme Court, and he went more toward the middle with Sandra Day O’Connor because that was the incentive structure back then. We see these talks over the COVID recovery relief bill; I can’t imagine that Jim Baker, the dealmaker, would have allowed four, five, six months to go by without some sort of a bill like this, the sort of stalemate that we find ourselves in now. So many things that we see today seem so unlikely if you go back and look at what the Baker era was like.
MR. COSTA: The Baker era also included some tough moments. I mean, it comes through in this book. This was a tough political operator, and you write about one of the more controversial aspects of Republican politics during Baker’s time as a key Republican leader, namely that Willie Horton ad that aired during the 1988 presidential campaign.
MR. BAKER: Right, exactly. Look, we shouldn’t –
NARRATOR: (From video.) (In progress) – and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times.
MR. COSTA: Peter, how does that ad that aired during the ’88 campaign factor into Baker’s legacy?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think it’s an important part because, look, Baker was a tough partisan. He was a knife fighter. It wasn’t that he was soft, and we shouldn’t romanticize the past. I don’t mean to suggest that somehow things were always, you know, sweetness and light in the old days. Baker was a tough partisan during election years. Now, that ad wasn’t actually aired by Bush’s campaign itself; it was ad – it was aired by an independent – supposedly, anyway – independent organization. But the Baker – the Bush campaign under Baker’s leadership had, in fact, talked about Willie Horton and did, in fact, hammer home on the furlough issue, as well as issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the ACLU and patriotism that was, you know, seen by many as kind of tough politics. But here’s the difference – yes, there were tough politics in the even-numbered years, but as soon as the election is over Baker and people like him in that generation would sit down with the other party to cut deals, right? Jim Baker sat down with the Democrats in 1983 to revamp the Social Security program and put it on a stronger financial footing. He sat down with the Democrats in 1986 to rewrite the entire tax code. He sat down with Democrats in 1989 to end the Contra war, which had so debilitated the Reagan administration at one point. So yes, you could be a partisan in the even-numbered years but there was still a point to elections, and the point was to get to the place where you could govern.
MR. COSTA: Let’s hear from Baker and what he told a documentary filmmaker about that episode. Do we have the clip?
FORMER SECRETARY JAMES BAKER: (From video.) Politics is a blood sport. I damn well know that because I’ve done a lot of it and I have the bruises to show for it.
MR. COSTA: Peter, what do you make of that?
MR. BAKER: You know, he does have the bruises to show for it. And I think, you know, if you ask Michael Dukakis, you ask Al Gore, you ask these Democrats that went up against him, they would tell you this guy is as tough as they come. But I also think that they recognize him as somebody who, you know, had limits. That even as tough as they were back in 1988 and 2000, during the Florida recount, that there were, in fact, lines that Baker and people of that era, Democrats and Republicans, wouldn’t cross that we see crossed all the time today.
I think back to the impeachment. During the impeachment, Bob, I was covering the impeachment of Trump during the day. One night I came back, and I was looking through some files for the Baker book to make sure we had gone through everything. I found this memo that I hadn’t really noticed before, didn’t include in the original draft of the book. And it was a memo that Baker had written to the file in 1992 when Bush was losing to Clinton, and four Republican congressmen came into the Oval Office and say, hey, you need to call the Russians and ask them for some help, get some dirt on Clinton. And Baker writes this memo to the file saying, we said absolutely not; that is beyond the pale, we don’t do that kind of thing. To see that memo at the same time President Trump was on trial in the Senate for basically asking Ukraine to help with his domestic politics I think says something about how much things have changed.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk for a minute, Peter, about his relationship with President Reagan. I found that part of the book truly fascinating, because Secretary Baker is so associated with President George H.W. Bush, that friendship over decades going back to Texas. But Reagan decides in 1981, having won the White House in 1980, to make Jim Baker, the confidant of his rival George Bush, his chief of staff. What did that tell you about Reagan and about Baker?
MR. BAKER: I think that’s exactly the right way to put it, Bob. It tells you something about Reagan, that he would pick a guy who had run at that point not just one but two campaigns against him – both Gerry Ford at the 1976 convention, where Ford beat back Reagan, and in 1980 where Bush ran a strong second to Reagan for the nomination. And yet, what he saw in Jim Baker, and what the people around him like Mike Deaver and Stu Spencer saw in Jim Baker was somebody who could make the trains run on time. They weren’t going to stand on ceremony. They wanted somebody who could make Reagan’s vision work in Washington. Just having Ed Meese, who was a carrier of the flame, as chief of staff wouldn’t have accomplished that, Reagan decided.
And so he was willing to take in somebody who had worked on the other side of the aisle for him, and they had a pretty good relationship for eight years. He not only made him chief of staff for his first four years, and run his reelection campaign, he made him treasury secretary in the second term. So I think that in the end Baker was often accused by Reaganites of holding back Reagan. The famous phrase was, let Reagan be Reagan. But in some ways, I think that was a way of taking a shot at Baker because they didn’t want to take a shot at Reagan if he didn’t always do what the conservatives thought he ought to do. Reagan relied on Baker to be a pragmatist, because Reagan was a pragmatist – at least a lot more than people recognized.
MR. COSTA: And, Peter, finally, how should we remember Jim Baker in terms of the Cold War? How key of a player was he during that time?
MR. BAKER: Right, exactly. It’s not that Jim Baker brought the Cold War to an end, and he didn’t reunify Germany or do these things, but these things happened on his watch and he managed them, right? They didn’t have to end the way that they did. The Cold War could have ended in a much, much more volatile, dangerous, violent way than it did. But Baker, as secretary of state at that time, along with George H.W. Bush in the White House, helped to manage a revolutionary moment in our history to a successful and peaceful end.
He helped pull together the two Germanys and reunify a country. They probably were moving that direction on their own, of course, but it takes an American leadership to help push that process through, and overcome the objections not just of the Soviets, but of the French and the British who were also quite skeptical. So I think that he’s got – you know, he was secretary of state in probably the most extraordinary three or four years of our modern history. And I think that, you know, even though he himself was not a revolutionary, he helped manage a pretty revolutionary time.
MR. COSTA: And while it’s mocked these days, the Republican establishment style, it seemed to almost work during the end of the Soviet Union in terms of President Bush, at the time, Secretary of State Baker not celebrating the demise of the USSR.
MR. BAKER: Right. They had – they brought a certain nuance to foreign policy that you don’t always see. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was Bush’s instinct, and Baker agreed with him, that to celebrate too much, to say hey we win, was only to rub Gorbachev’s nose in it in the Soviet Union, and worse possibly even to rile his conservative enemies within his own structure and possibly undo the progress that was being done. So Baker and Bush understood that there were times to be, you know, aggressive and overt, and times to be restrained and subtle. And that’s, I think, a lesson that other presidents and secretaries of state can and should learn.
MR. COSTA: Well, Peter, I don’t know how you do it. I want to toast you and Susan on this book, because you never stop working for The New York Times, story after story. And you’re on television. And then you also produce these major works on history and politics. Warm congrats to you and Susan. Look forward to seeing both of you soon, and Susan too, back on Washington Week. Thanks again, Peter.
MR. BAKER: Thank you, Bob. To Washington’s other multitasker, you always manage to do everything so well yourself.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’re all – OK, we all have to multitask these days. But again, terrific book. If you haven’t read it, it’s The Man Who Ran Washington – powerful book.
That’s it for this edition of our Washington Week Extra. And thanks, again, to Peter. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, I would encourage you to sign up for our newsletter. It comes out every Friday. You’ll get an advance look at our show, a note from me, some notes on our guests and our regulars. I think you’ll enjoy it. Sign up.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.