'The Man Who Ran Washington,' James Baker, Laments Today's Politics A new book by the journalist-author duo Peter Baker and Susan Glasser delves into the story of the once-powerbroker. "I think he always has this idea that things can be fixed," Peter Baker says.
NPR logo

James Baker, 'The Man Who Ran Washington,' Laments Today's Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/919061386/919658852" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
James Baker, 'The Man Who Ran Washington,' Laments Today's Politics

James Baker, 'The Man Who Ran Washington,' Laments Today's Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/919061386/919658852" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Washington is and always will be a town that struggles between outcomes and principles. It's a place where compromise is both necessary and invariably suspect.

That is a line from the opening pages of a new book, a book about Washington when it was a different town that worked in a different way and about a man who excelled at getting things done in that distant Washington. "The Man Who Ran Washington" is about James Baker, a former secretary of state, former White House chief of staff, power broker sans pareil and the subject of the latest book by journalist-author duo Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, who also happen to be married to each other. And I hope we're going to get to that, too.

Welcome, both of you, to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PETER BAKER: Thanks for having me.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thanks so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So let's start where the story begins, really, which is with James Baker's unlikely rise in Washington. As the two of you tell it, Baker was 45 years old, and he just happened to be ready to leave Texas and his legal career behind at exactly the moment when the entire Republican elite had been decimated by Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

GLASSER: Well, that's right. You know, he is maybe the world's most successful mid-career switch in many ways. And, of course, he also happened to have a very valuable asset in Washington, which was that his best friend from the Houston Country Club happened to be George H.W. Bush, his tennis partner. The two had just been through hell. Jim Baker's wife, Mary Stuart, had died before she was 40 of a tragic cancer, leaving him alone with four young sons. He was ready to escape the constrained world of the Houston aristocracy from which he sprung.

And what's amazing, though, is that it was really his remarkable talents that then skyrocketed him. Within one year, he went from being essentially an obscure appointee in the Commerce Department to running the election campaign of the incumbent president of the United States, Gerry Ford - an unthinkable rise, really.

KELLY: Peter, let me steer this next one to you. It seems the central or a central theme here is Baker's deep-seated belief that the point of holding power is to get things done. You have a great quote from Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, saying, you know, in a two-party system, purity is the enemy of victory. And Jim Baker was a winner.

BAKER: Yeah, that's exactly right. In Jim Baker's world, compromise isn't a dirty word. As you put it, it's a necessity toward getting things done. And there was not a zero-sum game in which if the other side wins, I lose. Unfortunately, I think what we see today is the opposite of that. And I think what this story tells us is not just Jim Baker's life but how Washington has changed so much.

KELLY: So this man, who was a master of Washington the way it once worked - what does he say when you all pushed him on Washington today? Does he, you know, just hold his head in his hands? Does he see...


KELLY: ...A path forward? What does he say?

BAKER: Oh, you know, it's funny, Mary Louise. We started this project in 2013 before Trump showed up - right? - because, in fact, Washington was seeing dysfunction even then. And when we would sit down with Baker - you're right - we would hear this sort of lament for how things had changed.

He literally - I remember we were at his ranch in Wyoming. And, you know, he's far distant at this place from any place in the world. And he scrunches his face in sort of pain about how nothing is getting done, about how everything is just fighting and posturing and politicking and partisanship. And, again, he was partisan. It's not that he was somehow some goody two-shoes. That's not the case. But he just couldn't understand how it was that the system was so broken. And, of course, in the seven years that we did this project, it only got worse.

GLASSER: And his angst over the rise of Donald Trump obviously was sort of the culmination of this fear about what Washington had become. He told us that he thought Trump was crazy, that he was nuts. He very, very reluctantly told us that he voted for Trump in 2016. We don't know what he's going to do this year. He at one point he told us he would vote for Joe Biden at one point. He then said, no, no. Don't say that I'm going to do that. His story helped us, I think, to understand how the modern Republican Party got to this point of a hostile takeover by Donald Trump, someone whose ideology and views are really anathema to the party that Jim Baker built and lived for.

KELLY: Samantha Power has some harsh words for Baker. She reviewed your book for The New York Times - Samantha Power, President Obama's former U.N. ambassador. And she writes, Baker's silence in the face of Trump's outrageous reflects the broader complicity of the so-called Republicans who know better. She says she's made a devil's bargain, and I wonder your thoughts on that, how you react to that.

BAKER: Well, look. You know, Baker's 90 years old, so, I mean, at a certain point, 90 - you can say that he's done his bit in public life.

KELLY: You can also say he's free to speak his mind, right?

BAKER: He's free to speak his mind. And he - and his compromise - and, again, everything is a compromise to some extent, right? - is he refused to endorse Trump. Trump wanted him to endorse him, and he refused. But he hasn't denounced him, either. I mean, he - I think he always has this idea that things can be fixed. And his idea of power, I think, is that you don't have any if you're outside the room.

And so throwing stones from the outside doesn't accomplish anything in his view - not that he's trying to have any power at this point of his life, but just his instinct is not to be a rebel, not to be a revolutionary but to find ways to make things better and make things work. And this is a president who I think is resistant, of course, to that kind of advice, that kind of counsel and that kind of thinking.

GLASSER: But, you know, you're right, Mary Louise, that sometimes when your subject speaks, you need to listen. And we asked him over and over and over again this question. And I think the answer is, in the end, quite revealing. You know, remember; this is a study in power, and power doesn't always look pretty up close. For us, it was a way to understand how Washington worked at a particular time when Baker was at his height - from the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War. But I think it ended up telling us something more eternal, frankly, about how Washington works, how power works. You know, those studies of LBJ don't make you end up thinking that he's such a wonderful person, right? You know, it shows you that naked exercise of political power is not something for the faint of heart.

KELLY: Speaking of the art of compromise and the art of getting things done, how the heck do you write a 600-page book together and stay married and you're speaking to each other?

GLASSER: We're still speaking. Exactly.

BAKER: We are still speaking although we're in different rooms in the house. I don't know what that tells you. No.


BAKER: We had a good time. Look. You know, Mary Louise, we got together 20 years ago. We just celebrated 20th anniversary, and our relationship started in the newsroom of The Washington Post during the Monica Lewinsky story, in fact. Susan was my editor, and we worked, you know, night and day on that story. And we were lucky enough to find each other. And so our relationship has been both personal and professional from the start. And I think - it is our second book together. We wrote one in 2005 on Russia and Vladimir Putin. And that story...

GLASSER: And by the way, we finished it the day...

BAKER: Yeah.

GLASSER: ...That Theo was born, our son.

BAKER: Exactly. So we sent in the last chapter like, (unintelligible). I sent the last chapters, and Sue said, good. I'm having contractions. So...

KELLY: (Laughter) God.

BAKER: We got a book and a baby on the same day. So if we could survive that, we could survive anything.

KELLY: That is Peter Baker of The New York Times and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. Together, they have written "The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life And Times Of James A. Baker III."

Thanks so much to you both.

BAKER: Oh, thanks for having us.

GLASSER: Thank you so much for having us.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.