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NYT's Peter Baker On James Baker III, Trump, Working With His Wife And Why He Doesn't Vote

Cover of the book "The Man Who Ran Washington"
Cover of the book "The Man Who Ran Washington"

During this election season, one of the nation’s top political reporters is keeping a close eye on the Trump administration. At the same time, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker has a new book out about a titan of Washington: former secretary of state James Baker.

Baker, no relation, is the co-author of “The Man Who Ran Washington: the Life and Times of James Baker III.” He wrote the book with his wife, “New Yorker” correspondent Susan Glasser.

James Baker, now 90, also ran presidential campaigns, was chief of staff to two presidents, and served as treasury secretary.

Before we talk about James Baker's life, it emerged, I think, after your book was printed that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Do you know how he's doing today?

Yeah, that's a great question. Thanks for asking. He's doing much better. He’s 90 years old. That's a real risk age for catching the coronavirus. And yet, he has just come through he and his wife are doing much better. He's already gone back out hunting and fishing. So we're glad to hear it.

Your book made some news on this front. But do you know if he plans to take any role in closing days of this election?

I don't think so. I don't think he plans to make any public statements. We've tried to check back with him just this week to see if he plans to say anything more. He says no, I've said everything I plan to say. He's planning to vote for President Trump. And I think, you know, his struggle with figuring that out, what he wants to do on that, has been one of the interesting, you know, facets of researching this book.

You worked on this project for many years, and it predates the rise of President Trump as a political figure in America. What got you interested in James Baker in the first place?

Yeah, we were surprised to learn that nobody ever done a biography of him. I mean, most secretaries of state have people writing biographies, that even if they hadn't done anything all that interesting, and here's a secretary of state who helped end the Cold War, reunified Germany, gathered Israel with its neighbors at the first Middle East peace conference, assembled the coalition that fought the Gulf War: that by itself was seen would be worth a biography. But then, if you add to that, his history and politics, it's a remarkable he ran five presidential campaigns. Think about that. Chief of staff twice, treasury secretary, I mean, five presidential campaigns. And yet, in addition to that, I thought his story, tell the story about Washington, how much has changed what was like, in his era and what's like today, so that's when we thought it was. A book not just about him, but about ourselves in a way, about Washington and about the country and his politics.

Well, say more about that. What do you think has changed?

Well, I mean, when he was in the height of power in Washington, he was a ruthless, tough, partisan campaigner during election season. Ask Michael Dukakis or Al Gore, they'll tell you, they don't think he was a softy by any means. But when the election was over, the election was over. And he would sit down with Democrats and cut deals that he thought were good for the country. Helped revamp Social Security in 1983. To put it on a stronger financial basis with Tip O'Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House. He sat down in 1986 with the Democrats to rewrite the entire tax code, the last time anybody's done that. He sat down with Jimmy Carter, among others, in the late 1980s, to solve the Contra war that had been so raging for years. And so, you know, his philosophy of governance was, you know, campaigning was a means to an end, it was a means to getting into power in order to do something. And I think today, unfortunately, governing is often seen as a vehicle for campaigning, it's the other way around. What people do, once they get into office, is position themselves for the next election, rather than actually trying to use the election. They just want to accomplish something, you know, of greater value.

And I imagine, it would be almost unthinkable for a person like James Baker to be taking part in political events, the way that the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been.

Yeah, he would not have done that in a public way. When he was Secretary of State, he was all focused on the diplomacy. He tried to keep his hands clean of the campaign that was already developing by his friend George H.W. Bush for re-election. He did not want anything to do with it. And Bush had to finally kind of ask him to come back to the White House to give up being Secretary of State to run the campaign. Much to his own chagrin, because he just he thought of himself at that point as a statesman. The idea of getting back into grubby politics was not what he wanted, and you're right, he would not have done what you see Secretary Pompeo doing. It's sort of mixed the two. He would not have thought that that was the right way to use America's top diplomatic post.

So let's go back to the beginning. He came from a patrician family in Texas. How did he get into politics? And what was his goal?

Yeah, it's a great story, fascinating story. He was from the aristocracy, his father, grandfather, great grandfather, they really build modern Houston. And they stayed out of politics. It was his grandfather's maxim, you know, work hard study and keep out of politics and Baker, the, future Secretary of State did that, really, until he's about 40 years old, didn't have anything to do with politics.

Friends, his wife, Barbara Bush once said that he probably liked to go hunting on Election Day. But his he got bored, I think, of law and he had a great tragedy in his family, his first wife died of cancer. And the one person you can find it in the one person he turned to during this terrible period for him, was his friend from the tennis courts in the Houston Country Club, George H.W. Bush. And Bush eventually kind of pulls him out of the grief he's experiencing after his wife's death. And Baker found that he had a taste work, and he had a talent for it. And so my wife likes to use a line: this is probably the most successful midlife career change that we've seen.

We'll get back to his relationship with Bush in a moment. But he experienced another tragedy later in life when in a freak accident, a granddaughter of his drowned. And I just wonder how those experiences affected him. You spent a lot of hours interviewing him and looking through his life. How did those experiences affect his worldview?

Well, it's a tragedy. Gosh, yeah. He was overseas, with his daughter, when the word came that his granddaughter had died in that terrible accident. His daughter told us, you know about flying home, to be with a family and you know, on a darkened plane, coming back to London in the middle of night, two of them just sitting in the chairs, crying with each other. And you don’t think of Baker as a as an emotional person. He's a pretty emotionally distant person for the most part. This is one of the great tragedies of his life, and the death of his wife rocked him. He told us that if he was ever going to become an alcoholic, it would have been that. He didn't know how to handle it, had four boys, all by himself to raise in the early 70s.

He finally got remarried, to Susan Garrett Winston, who was a friend of his wife’s. They put their families together, they had seven kids between them, kind of like The Brady Bunch, literally at the same time that TV show was on the air, except this is kind of the Quentin Tarantino version, where everybody was kind of unhappy and doing drugs. And you know, one of the sons vowed to break up the marriage. They didn't like the idea that dad had married somebody else. And it was really a dark period, I think for the family that had to really struggle to get through his difficult time, which they did. They stuck together and got through it. But it was not an easy process, I think that really shaped him and his wife, his new wife, Susan Baker, who's been with him ever since for the rest of their lives.

So before he rose to become the nation's top diplomat, he ran political campaigns. And he also served as Chief of Staff of the White House for two different presidents. How did that impact the way he saw American power and how to pull the levers?

What we like writing about is the story about the acquisition, exercise, and preservation of power. Right. He was really skilled, not because he was a power hungry person. I don't mean it that way. But he just, I think, found himself naturally adept at it, enjoying how to use the tools of government to make deals and get things done. So he worked for Ronald Reagan, as you mentioned, this is an extraordinary thing, if you think about it, because Baker at that point, had run not one but two campaigns against Ronald Reagan, one for Gerald Ford 1976, when they fought it out for the Republican nomination, and then again in 1980, when Baker was running George H.W. Bush's primary campaign against Reagan for the nomination that year. And despite that, Reagan said, this is somebody I'm going to bring into run my White House, which speaks to both Reagan and Baker, I think. Both their own qualities and their evaluation of each other and what their mutual needs were even though Reagan was a committed conservative, he needed somebody to actually make the tools of government work. And that's what he saw in Jim Baker.

So your earlier book, “Days of Fire,” which is just excellent, is about the second Bush White House and the Iraq War. As I recall, it shows a lot of infighting within, you know, the halls of power even as the party was very publicly united. And it was interesting here to learn just how much that dynamic was in play between Baker and George H.W. Bush, even though Baker was there with him all the way to literally his dying moments on his deathbed. They were very close allies. But they also had their rivalry, didn't they?

Yeah, that's exactly right. They were like brothers. That's the phrase everybody uses. We went interviewed George H.W. Bush before he passed about Baker for the book. And we interviewed George W. Bush as well. And they did describe it as a sibling relationship. And a sibling relationship has a rivalry at times, right? There are certainly moments when Bush got tired of Baker being described as the real power behind the throne. And of Baker telling him to do something he didn't want to do. He would famously tell them, you know, if you're so smart, how come you're not president? And it was certainly true that Baker from time to time would grow sort of disgruntled and think to himself, for all he can do, why can't I do it? I'm as good as he is. This just like, again, a brother might feel. It didn't hurt the relationship.

There was this competitive streak, because they're both super competitive men. That's why they did so well on the tennis courts. But you're right in the end, and there was a sort of a tension, I think, after the next ‘92 election. Some people with family, particularly Barbara Bush, felt that Jim Baker hadn't done enough for the campaign that her husband lost. And there was some sourness there for a few years. But he kind of got over that. And he came to the family's rescue in 2000, in the Florida recount, and as you say, he was there. On the day that George H.W. Bush died. He was at the house, he visited three times that day. And he was there in his room when President Bush was in bed in the last minutes and rubbing his feet. The way a friend or a brother would and it was it's a very sort of very moving scene, when you think about it. Then seeing him at the cathedral crying. And again, we don't see Jim Baker crying very often, it tells us a lot.

Yeah, that's a very touching scene at the end of your book. And he also, he showed you around his future gravesite. So he's obviously in this project been thinking about his own legacy and mortality.

Yeah, that's exactly right. We interviewed them in Houston, we interviewed in his office in Houston, we went to the ranch in Wyoming as well as interviewing him in Washington. So we saw them places that mattered to him. And one day we went down to Houston and said, please just drive us around your Houston. Show us where you grew up, and the country club and where you worked and your parents worked, and all of that. And he had sort of meticulously created this whole route for us to go. And we realized while we were in the car with him that he'd already run the route and had a practice run, which I think tells you a lot about his sort of fidelity to discipline and preparation, right? The family’s motto is the five P's. Prior preparation prevents poor performance. And he had already done that even just for a drive around the city with us. But yeah, he took us to his family graveside. And he showed us where he plans to spend eternity. And I think you're right, he spent a lot of time thinking about his legacy. He also took us, by the way, to the statues that are in Houston, there's on two different sides. And there's Baker and Bush.. And they're looking at each other, sort of distant by several hundred yards. And it's kind of this interesting moment, and it tells you a lot again about their partnership.

In terms of foreign policy, what was the Baker doctrine, if you will? He was really running foreign policy at a time when the Soviet Union was crumbling. And, you know, the dramas of the 20th century were about to change direction.

Yeah, essentially, he's a guy who I think is a conservative in a small c kind of way, which is to say, you know, he favors stability and order and discipline, and yet he was certainly at state at his most volatile moment, right? What he did was he managed the revolution. His goal was to take it in for a landing safely rather than let the plane crash. And so, you know, his philosophy of diplomacy is trying to figure out what the other guy needs and make it possible for him to walk away from any negotiation, feeling like he got something even after he gave you what you needed. And that's so different than what we see in Washington today, right? Today, Washington is filled with people who think politics are about zero sum competition. If you get something out of a negotiation, it means I failed. This is not the way he saw he saw politics — as the art of the possible, not the art of the negative.

Earlier you were talking about the way James Baker reemerged during that all-important court fight over the 2000 presidential election that helped seal the deal for George W. Bush. What did he wind up thinking of the George W. Bush foreign policy? the Iraq War, the War on Terror?

Yeah, that's a great question. He helped with Bush 43 in office, but they were not on the same page when it came to that kind of thing. Baker, as we just said, is not a revolutionary, he didn't see it as the America's goal to, you know, spread democracy and around the world the way George W. Bush articulated it. And he didn't think that the Iraq War was a good idea. They had stopped themselves when they had their own war with Iraq. We are going to Baghdad without trying to topple Saddam Hussein. And he likes to tell the story says, you know, for years, you will say, Well, how come you stopped and you didn't go to Baghdad? And he would ask very critically. And then he said, After 2004 2005, nobody asked me that question anymore, because you saw what happened, right. And son’s experience validates the father's decision to exercise restraint. And but they could try to help Bush 43 without directly confronting him. He served as the head of the Iraq study group to provide a plan for how to get out when things got bad. But you know, I think that was sort of the moment that kind of brought home the end of Baker's real influence, you know, because back to the next generation, Bush was going to do his own thing. And he didn't see things the way his father's consigliere  did.

Your book, as we said, has made some headlines because it appears that Baker plans to vote for President Trump this fall at a time when a lot of his contemporaries and acolytes are going to become never Trumpers, or at least support Joe Biden in this race. So why did he come to that decision?

It's a great question and we spent, like, literally five years asking him about it. Because friends of Bush's, they all voted against Trump, right? George H.W. Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush voted in Jeb Bush, George W. Bush says he voted for none of the above. So the Bushes had broken with their own party already. So you would think that that would give license to Baker. Because he was so close to the family, and yet he couldn't. And we talked about that, again, with him a lot. And he talked about it almost as sort of a great anxiety. He clearly didn't think much of Trump. He thought he was, you know, irresponsible and his own worst enemy. He used words like crazy, nuts. But, you know, in his view, it's better to have a Republican than a Democrat, because in the end, I'm a Republican, I'm a conservative, he likes conservative judges. He likes the tax cuts, he likes the regulation. He thinks that Republicans, you know, have it better than Democrats on issues like health care, and, and so forth, even though you know, he and Trump disagree on so much. I mean, Trump has really kind of taken down a lot of the pillars of the Republican Party that Baker helped to build, including free trade, this school, you know, at least lip service anyway, to fiscal responsibility. You know, the importance of international alliances, in fact, of international presence in the world, all of these things that Baker stayed for, are not what Trump stands for. But in the end, Baker has decided that he can't bring himself to break with the party that he's now been a part of, for the last two years.

It was one of the, I think, at least from where I'm sitting, one of the moments when Trump was dead on in his public comments, when he said, Hey, you know, if you want the judges and you want the tax cuts, you're gonna have to stick with me. And it appears, you know, a huge part of the party has done just that.

Well, and I think that's exactly right. And I think that Baker, in some ways, is like a parable for the modern Republican Party. His struggle has been the larger party struggle with Trump, who is not their cup of tea. You know, they don't particularly like him, they wouldn't invite him to their country clubs, and they wouldn't invite him to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. But, you know, he has been successful at what Jared Kushner told me a couple weeks ago was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party. And they have found they've decided that they have to accommodate themselves to him for at least as long as he's in office.

OK, let me ask you some contemporary political questions now. You wrote a recent news analysis about the fight over the Supreme Court we're seeing right now following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And that may have given President Trump a lifeline to a certain degree in this election. Do you think that's enough to change the current dynamic which shows, you know, Joe Biden pretty comfortably leading in most of the national polls?

We're gonna see if this plays much of a difference or not. The main importance for Trump is to get his own base energized. He spent four years basically being president for the people who've gotten there in 2016. He has done very little to reach out and try to broaden his coalition to people, unlike most presidency do that. And I think his theory of the case is if he gets his people turned out in greater numbers and the other side is there, people will turn out the best the real key the election not about winning over people in the middle anymore. And so one way to do that is to make the courts a central issue. He feels like he won 2016 part because the Scalia seat was open. And it was so important to conservatives that they fill it and did not let Hillary Clinton fill it. And now in fact, he has a sort of parallel situation where there's an open seat that is at stake. And it matters right now. Now he's trying to fill it before the election, because he told us the other day that he wants there to be a fifth justice that he thinks will vote for him if the election ends up at the Supreme Court the way that Bush-Gore did. That's a really interesting thing. He's basically telling us that he felt like he had his own stake, personal stake and getting the Supreme Court nominee on the court by November 3.

And beyond that, he's also said repeatedly in recent days that, you know, he may not accept the results of the election. He's already called it rigged, in the course of the summer campaigning. So what do you think happens between November 3 and January 20? Are we destined to be in court here?

Well, it seems like it. There already something like 150 lawsuits already out there filed by various parties, both parties and various interest groups, fighting about the rules and election. Now, in some ways, it's better to have them printed out before the election than after, you know, in Florida, everybody waited till afterwards to discuss the butterfly ballot, and what kind of chad you needed in order to count the vote. But it does mean that we're in a very litigious place. And he himself clearly intends to challenge any results other than a victory for himself. He's made clear that anything other than, you know, a clear win for him, he will consider to be illegitimate and rigged. And that's a really dynamic, volatile scenario. I don't think I've ever seen in quite like this. You know, one thing about Bush and Gore with Jim Baker, these two candidates, they respected the system, they respected the process, they fought it out. But once it was over, you know, they said, OK, our system has decided, and they both, Bush and Gore, sought to, you know, make it better. Neither one tried to blow up the whole system. And that's what we're seeing, I think, a lot of people are afraid of right now, given what the president saying,

I keep thinking about the Al Gore concession after the court decision: I strongly disagree, but I accept it. It's very hard to imagine hearing something like that from President Trump.

I don't think we will, I will be against his character ever gets everything we've noticed and seen in the last few years. And you're right, Gore was very gracious when he did that. Now, you could say, well, maybe he shouldn't have taken it as far as he did. But when he did concede, he did concede. And he said, It's time now for the country to come together and move on and Bush when he gave his speech at that time that I'm now present for all Americans, including the Democrats who voted against me. And those are the messages that we expect to hear out of our national leaders. And you're not hearing that right now from this president.

A couple more things for you. You and your wife work for competing outlets, but you worked together on this book about James Baker. How is it working together? And how do you decide how it will work?

Well, that's a great question. We met as journalists at the Washington Post. So our relationship from the very beginning has been both professional and personal. She was my editor, in fact, during the Monica Lewinsky story and the impeachment of 1998-99. So, you know, she was the boss and we set the dynamics for the relationship early. It made things clear and easy. We really enjoy working together, we were corresponding together in Moscow and have written another book together on Putin's Russia. And I think we just, you know, we don't see ourselves as competitive, we have different kinds of roles. Her column for The New Yorker is more of an in opinion column; I’m a news reporter. So we have a different, you know, role. And I think that you know, we serve a different, you know, part of the media echosphere, if you will, but we love working together because it's a great treat, it's to be able to share that with somebody that you that you love, is a real blessing.

And when you're writing the book, do you split up chapters? Or do you go over every word together? How does it work?

Yeah, that's a good question. The first book, the Russia book, we did different chapters and then traded them. This book we did a little differently, but we both worked on the same draft because it's a little different kind of book, because a biography, you can't separate it into distinct stories quite as easily. But you know, we bring different skills to it. I think the trick is trying to make sure that the voice is all sound, you know, the same throughout a book because her voice is different than my voice. But you know, if you start with the idea that she's the boss, you're gonna be in good shape.

You yourself made some headlines for people who follow political journalism when you revealed that not only don't you give your personal opinion about politics in private conversations, but you don't even vote. And I was wondering if you could explain why you've made that decision.

Yeah, thanks for asking. It's a personal decision. I don't tell other journalists whether they should or shouldn't, it's just for me. But, you know, when I started covering the White House in 1996, I decided that it was, you know, I didn't like the idea of having to decide whether the person I'm covering was right or wrong, you know, and even in the privacy of my own mind, you know, if you just if you vote for against the person you're covering, it seems to me, then you have a sort of rooting interest in their success or failure to justify whatever decision you might have made. And so I decided that as a you know, as a, for my own purposes, to try to remain as detached and neutral and disinterested as possible that I would try not to ever make up my mind on who's right. Instead, just follow the facts and provide analysis based on those facts to readers, and that they can make up their own mind. They don't need me telling them what to think. It's also true, I live in the District of Columbia, let's face it, and it's, you know, it's not like my vote would change anything

Taxation without representation.

Taxation without representation, and even to the extent that we have the Electoral College votes, which we do for the presidential election, you know, it's a pretty one-party place. So it doesn't really last anything personally, in that sense. But I think it's important to try for myself anyway, to try to remain as detached and neutral as possible and just follow the facts rather than, you know, personal opinion.

But what about the argument that you're probably better educated on the issues and the people than, like, 99.9% of all voters?

Well, I doubt that's true. But I appreciate the thought. I feel like I perform a service, if I can provide information to voters, so that they can make up their own mind that may have a greater value to our democracy, that's informed than an individual vote, right. And that to do that job, as best I can, you know, requires me to be faithful to the facts and not to my own, you know, personal preferences.

You've covered four presidents so far. I know the story is not over yet. But how do you think President Trump will be remembered as of today?

Oh, that's a great question. I think a lot of it depends on November 3, obviously, and how that goes. I mean, you know, we haven't written the end of the story yet. Four more years would be a very different story than if it ends now. If it ended now, and you know, the politics change back to a different word, familiar and comfortable form that Biden seems to represent and promise, then we might see Trump as a as an aberration. I think if he wins again, we will see him as a representation of serious change in the way our politics works and the way our country thinks of itself, because I think he is different than Republicans and Democrats of the past. He's not part of the system. That's one thing that makes him attractive and appealing to many to many voters. But he is different than any of the other 44 presidents that we've had.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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