Iraq Panel Puts Baker in the Spotlight Again

James Baker speaks with reporters at a November 2000 press conference in Tallahassee, Fla. i i

hide captionJames Baker speaks with reporters at a November 2000 press conference in Tallahassee, Fla., where he was advising the campaign of George W. Bush in the disputed presidential election.

AFP/Getty Images
James Baker speaks with reporters at a November 2000 press conference in Tallahassee, Fla.

James Baker speaks with reporters at a November 2000 press conference in Tallahassee, Fla., where he was advising the campaign of George W. Bush in the disputed presidential election.

AFP/Getty Images

James Baker's Career

  • Born in Houston, April 28, 1930
  • Graduated from Princeton University in 1952
  • Served in the United States Marine Corps, 1952-54
  • Received a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law at Austin in 1957
  • Practiced law with the Houston firm of Andrews and Kurth, 1957-75
  • Undersecretary of Commerce, 1975-76
  • Campaign manager for President Gerald Ford, 1976
  • Chairman of George H.W. Bush presidential campaign, 1979-80
  • Senior Advisor to the Reagan/Bush general election campaign, 1980
  • White House Chief of Staff for President Reagan, 1981-85
  • Secretary of the Treasury, and Chairman of the President's Economic Council, 1985-88
  • Secretary of State in President George H.W. Bush's Cabinet from 1989-92
  • Senior Counselor and White House Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush, 1992-93
  • Represents George W. Bush in Florida during the disputed presidential election in 2000
  • Named special envoy in by President George W. Bush on the issue of Iraq debt, 2003
  • Co-chairman, along with former President Carter, of the Federal Commission on Election Reform, 2005
  • Currently serves as co-chairman, with former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton, of the Iraq Study Group.

Sources: State Department, Baker Institute

James Baker is back in the headlines.

A trusted adviser to President Reagan and the first President Bush, he now serves as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, whose recommendations will come out Wednesday. Baker's close relationship with the second President Bush has heightened interest in the group's findings. James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute thinks of it this way: "We're left in a situation something like Waiting for Godot except Godot's name is Baker."

In his current role, Baker sees the president often. "The president told me early on in the administration, 'Whenever you're in Washington, please call my secretary, you know,'" Baker said in an October interview with Fresh Air. "'Don't go through the system, just call my secretary, tell her you're going to be here and if it's convenient, if I can do it, I would very much like to see you.'"

Baker has a reputation as a tough negotiator, both in the political and the diplomatic arena.

The Texas lawyer turned to politics in 1970, after his first wife died. In a memoir, he writes that an old friend offered him a job in politics, "to take my mind off my grief."

The old friend was George H.W. Bush, who was on his way to becoming president.

Baker went on to run President Gerald Ford's 1976 campaign. In the 1980s, he became chief of staff for President Reagan.

"Baker was a political animal," Reagan adviser Michael Deaver says. "I mean, you could smell it.... [He] always had his hands on all the moving parts."

He does not mince words. When Baker advised George W. Bush in the disputed election of 2000, his public statements had a way of deftly knifing the opposition.

"We will therefore vigorously oppose the Gore campaign's efforts to keep recounting, over and over, until it happens to like the result," Baker said at one point.

As secretary of state under the first President Bush, Baker took special interest in tackling complex problems, such as the Middle East conflict.

Former Baker aide Dennis Ross, a Democrat who also worked as an envoy for President Clinton, says the perception of Baker in the Middle East is: "He's tough, but he's also straightforward and you can count on what he says."

And he has a temper. Ross tells the story about how Baker was negotiating with two key Palestinians.

"They started the meeting by opening up issues that he thought had been closed. He had his notebook and he clapped it shut, loudly, stood up and said, 'With you people the souk is never closed but it's closed with me,' and he walked out. The two of them were just dumbfounded and asked me to see if I could go get him to come back. I went to see him and he was pacing and I said, 'OK, they've agreed to drop what they were now asking. They will accept what you were pushing for.' And he looked at me and he was still mad but said, 'OK.' So I said, 'You want to come back?' He says, 'Not just yet.'"

Baker believes in talking to all parties in a conflict. In that interview on Fresh Air, he said he negotiated with Mideast powers that are now shunned by the current administration.

"When we were gearing up an unprecedented international coalition in connection with the first Gulf War, we were even able, by talking to Syria, to get them to join the coalition, to kick an Arab neighbor out of Kuwait though the use of force. They even sent a division of troops down to fight alongside American forces. And, you know, my view is ...you don't just talk to your friends. You talk as well to your enemies."

Baker was not able to establish a durable Mideast peace as secretary of state. Now he faces an even more complicated conflict.

Ross says that a number of things must happen in order for the Iraq Study Group's plan to avoid being dead on arrival.

First, the president must be prepared to accept it. Second, both Democrats and Republicans on the commission must embrace its recommendations.

Baker's old friend Michael Deaver has his doubts about how much the commission can accomplish. "As a communicator I worry about the expectations being too high," Deaver says. "I worry that all of a sudden the Baker Commission is going to be the solution. There isn't anybody that can bring a solution here."

"He's got to contend with the maelstrom that is Iraq today," Ross adds. The challenge for the Iraq Study Group isn't just to come up with a solution that politicians themselves might have trouble proposing. It's to come up with any sort of viable solution at all.

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