James Baker with George HW Bush in 1980 © Getty Images

For three decades and more, James A Baker III was the face of American power. The tall Texan with the impassive stare ranks as the only person to have served as White House chief of staff, treasury secretary and secretary of state. In the Reagan and Bush Snr administrations, Baker enjoyed the unofficial title of “co-president”, a ruthless political operator who deployed his dealmaking skills to advance US interests while working with allies to help bring a peaceful end to the cold war.

Baker combined a hunter’s instinct for vulnerability with an acute sense of political timing. He knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, as the Texans say about gambling. Baker understood that access to information and the president was the key to the exercise of power, and he was a master of the tactical leak, invariably accompanied by plausible deniability.

As Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser write in their enthralling biography, The Man Who Ran Washington, Baker’s record as a negotiator, implementer and enforcer is unsurpassed, and looks even more impressive in the current atmosphere of gridlock and hyper-partisanship.

He was “The Velvet Hammer” in a feuding Reagan White House; the architect of groundbreaking tax reform as treasury secretary; and the most consequential secretary of state since Dean Acheson (though Henry Kissinger might well disagree). Baker was “the archetype of a style of American politics and governance that today seems lost”, the authors write. He favoured an approach based on compromise over confrontation, pragmatism over ideological purity. He got things done.

Baker came late to politics, and even later to the Republican party. He grew up in Houston, scion of a patrician family of lawyers who put the oil town on the map at the turn of the 20th century. His father, known as the Warden, was a disciplinarian. After a youth largely spent carousing, including an undistinguished period at Princeton, Baker turned serious when he joined a rival law firm, married and started a family with his sweetheart, Mary Stuart.

Her death aged 38 from cancer is often cited as the trigger for Baker’s entry into politics. In fact, he was itching for a new challenge beyond the law. It first came via his friend and tennis partner George H W Bush, a preppy East Coast figure turned Texan oilman. In 1964, Bush was running for the US Senate in Texas. Baker agreed to help. Bush lost but Baker had caught the political bug.

The Bush-Baker relationship, one of many fascinating subtexts in this book, was a mixture of sibling rivalry and enduring loyalty. Baker masterminded Bush’s campaign in 1988 that saw the vice-president win the White House, one of five presidential races Baker managed. But he was desperate to shed the image of being a fixer (or worse, “staff”). He wanted to be a bigger player, a statesman who could exercise power not just in smoke-filled rooms in Washington but also on the international stage. It was his good fortune — and America’s — that he was the right man in the right place when history beckoned with the fall of communism.

Baker and Glasser convey vividly the frenetic events of 1989-90, when reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev captured the hearts and minds of Europeans (especially Germans), leaving the new Bush team looking ponderous. Baker, who always had a top-class team of advisers, pressed for a bolder approach against the instincts of the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House national security team.

Chief of Staff James Baker with President Ronald Reagan in 1981 © Getty Images
State Secretary James Baker with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 © LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

The authors might have dwelt longer on the administration’s early tilt towards Helmut Kohl’s Germany at the expense of the UK, where prime minister Margaret Thatcher thought Baker was overrated and untrustworthy. Baker, who never forgot a slight, said Mrs T had Ronald Reagan wrapped round her little finger. He was determined Bush would not suffer similar manipulation.

German unification, peacefully achieved, was perhaps Baker’s greatest triumph. The authors cavil that he (and President Bush) failed to show “vision” in helping Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But US influence was limited, and there was no appetite in Congress for a Marshall Plan for post-Soviet Russia under Gorbachev’s courageous if unstable successor Boris Yeltsin. Propping up Gorbachev was the pragmatic — and best — option.

Similarly, it seems unfair to criticise Baker for failing to press for intervention in Yugoslavia in 1991-92. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” has long been hung around Baker’s neck, but he sensed on a day trip to Belgrade that the Serbian nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic were hell-bent on breaking up Yugoslavia and, if necessary, war. America’s subsequent costly misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq vindicated the judgments of “Mr Caution”.

The strength of this biography is that it draws on multiple sources and avoids Baker’s legendary desire to control the storyline. It pays due respect to a great public servant while bearing witness to the flaws of the man. Baker knew how to buy favours by sharing juicy morsels with journalists, but he knew how to intimidate too. (When I once suggested that he was ambivalent about military intervention in Iraq ahead of the Gulf war, I received a call from his consigliere Margaret Tutwiler: “Secretary Baker has a steel-trap mind”).

Baker did have a habit of disappearing like Macavity the cat when things went wrong. The Bush family resented his less than outstanding efforts during the 1992 presidential election campaign. Baker was unhappy about being asked to go back to the White House to rescue his old friend’s bid for a second term. Yet in almost every other respect, Baker was the ultimate family friend, coming to the rescue in 2000 when a recount in Florida threatened George W Bush’s victory in the presidential campaign. His legal strategy trounced the Democrats.

If there is one sore point in this stellar record it must be his attitude to Donald Trump. Back in 2016, he agonised over whether to support the real estate developer and reality TV host. Trump stood against everything Baker valued: alliances, the judicious application of American power, bipartisanship and working with Congress. He once declared Trump to be “nuts” but still voted for him against Hillary Clinton.

Baker put his party first but he was also trading tacit support for access and influence. He reasoned that the system in Washington, the checks and balances that he so adroitly exploited throughout his career, would contain Trump and his worst instincts.

For once, the Wise Man was wrong, and America is the poorer for it.

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A Baker III, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Doubleday, RRP$35, 720 pages

Lionel Barber is a former editor of the FT

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