Making Washington Work!

Making Washington Work!

Photo credit: Courtesy of PBS

A look back at the relationship between President George Herbert Walker Bush and his Chief of Staff, James Baker III.  This article was first posted on March 23rd, 2015.

James Addison Baker III defines charisma – a personal magic of leadership. The former Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan who accidentally worked his way up the political food chain is the subject of a PBS documentary that airs on March 24th: James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work narrated by Tom Brokaw. It explores his life and long political career; a remarkably savvy power player, deal-maker and diplomat respected on both sides of the aisle for his ability to get things done.


Hollywood on the Potomac sat down with film-makers John Hesse and Eric Stange for insight into how this unlikely politician became one of the most influential politicians of all time.

We asked each if they could define Baker in one word, neither could.  So, we went for two words. “Consummate statesman,” said Hesse.  “Supremely competent,” said Stange.

So what makes a person supremely competent we asked Stange: “He did come from a family with great expectations for him although I don’t know how these things work. I think part of it was that. He grew up in a family that obviously prepared him very well for taking on important roles and having a kind of self-confidence and a kind of cool, intellectual approach to problems. That certainly helps. Then I think law school and being a lawyer, just being a workaday lawyer doing business deals seems to have helped him quite a bit. That’s where he says he learned his negotiating skills. That’s where he really came to understand what it takes to get a deal done.”


John Hesse explained the making of a consummate statesman: “I think the birth of his children and the death of his first wife was certainly part of his growth as a lawyer and his career here in Houston. That was before he got into politics. I think that whole experience probably showed or brought forth his strength in being able to endure and pull through something that was obviously very traumatic. He explains himself that it was a very hard time for him. As he put it, if there was ever a time he was going to ‘twist off’ as he says, that would’ve been it.  But fortunately, I think the support of in particular his good friend George H. W. Bush helped refocus him. I think that was a turning point in his life. It launched him into another career that he had not anticipated and I think really set the path to the future that we know now was pretty historic.”

A little background: “Baker’s first wife, the former Mary Stuart McHenry, was active in the Republican Party working on the Congressional campaigns of George H. W. Bush. Originally, Baker had been a Democrat but too busy trying to succeed in a competitive law firm to worry about politics and considered himself apolitical. His wife’s influence led Baker to politics and the Republican Party. He was a regular tennis partner of George H. W. Bush at the Houston Country Club in the late 1950s. When Bush, Sr. decided to vacate his Congressional seat and run for the US Senate in 1969, he supported Baker’s decision to run for the Congressional seat he was vacating. However, Baker changed his mind about running for Congress when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died in February 1970,” according to Wikipedia.

He later went on to marry Susan Garrett Winston.“That was an interesting story in itself of how those two families came together with Susan’s kids and his kids,” added Hesse. “As he indicates in the film, the bump in the road came when they didn’t tell them they were going to get married and so that caused quite an uproar I guess with the kids; and trying to get that soothed over was really as much a credit to Susan I think as it was to him.”


On Baker’s relationship with George Bush: “They were friends early on,” Hesse explained. “They were tennis partners together, which I think is where a lot of their relationship and friendship grew. They just became very close. They were very close in their ideology and I think their ethics and how they perceived that professional life to be. It’s something that I think just grew over the years in a way that as he got into politics and as he certainly achieved the posts and appointments that he did – especially in President Bush’s administration – it certainly added to the integrity of his representation of the United States and of the President and the White House. I think as several people in the film have indicated you knew the closeness and the relationship between he and President Bush; and you knew that when Baker was speaking about something or putting something forward on behalf of the President you knew that he really was speaking for the President. That type of a close relationship is something that you don’t find all the time.”

“All that stuff counts,” added Eric. “One of the things people always talked about during his Secretary of State years was the fact that when he walked into a room or he got off a plane or he showed up at an official event, people knew he stood for the United States of America. This wasn’t just Secretary of State Baker showing up; this was the United States of America showing up. That, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that he was so close to President Bush and everyone knew that. But it also, I think, has a lot to do with the way he carried himself and the way he projected a kind of importance and a kind of gravitas. I don’t think that every Secretary of State necessarily does that. I think it depends. Yeah, he’s got that kind of … it’s not a domineering presence but it’s a…. presence you can’t help but notice.”

3226 Baker portrait

James A. Baker, III

Indeed, Hollywood on the Potomac always took note when Baker walked into a room. Not that this should really have anything to do with his abilities, but he had a great stature about him and was extremely attractive. Do you think sometimes that helps in ones persona we asked Stange: “Yeah, I’m sure it helps. It’s hard to say with him. From everything I’ve heard, and people have said this often about him, when he walked into a room people noticed. He’s one of those people. He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s slender, he wears very nice suits, as you probably remember.” 

This did not necessarily reap, however, the confidence of his adversaries.  He lost elections early on both for himself and his candidates. How do you think he got away with losing … I mean he lost a lot of battles, but in the beginning when you lose races you generally don’t get second chances. How did he do that?  “Well I think it was his skills and I’m not sure that anything in particular that he did was either right or wrong as the reason for losing some of the elections. I think that everyone recognized his talent and his skills on how he dealt with and organized and executed a lot of the functions of that process and the political side of it is where I think his talents and skills really shown through,” replied Hesse.


“I think he was very good at seeing 2 or 3 or 4 steps down the road,” he added.  “I think the skills that he developed, as he says, were how he thought about politics and negotiation and diplomacy.  All are people skills and I think he was very well blessed and talented in that realm. I think his ability to work with all sorts of people – adversaries, foes and allies alike – was something that he was really known for. It was his ability to sit down and try to achieve something that was a goal of his or of the administration’s in recognizing what the other side of the table needed to accomplish in order to get your goals accomplished. He was quite skilled at solving other people’s problems in order to solve his own or the country’s own. It was something that I think, I won’t say it’s a unique skill, that is very prevalent with him that is really hard to see in a lot of people today.”

Hollywood on the Potomac asked Eric to respond to two words as regards Baker’s influence: The Soviet Union and The Berlin Wall: “I think that the heroes of that situation are Gorbachev and other Eastern Europeans who really caused the Berlin Wall to fall, but what Baker did, what Baker and Bush did, was to manage the relationship with the Soviet Union at a time that was incredibly fraught with all kinds of things. They managed it very, very well, very carefully and always with an eye to preserving peace, to keeping the situation from turning violent even though the easy and ideological way would have been to trumpet a Western victory and to declare victory in the Cold War. They didn’t do that. They very carefully kept their doors open to Gorbachev, kept the relationship open and supportive and that made a huge difference.  I think his greatest achievement was helping usher in the end of the Cold War in a peaceful and fairly productive way. It’s had its problems, but it could have been a lot worse. I hope that’s how he’s remembered. I think that’s how he should be remembered. He was there at a critical moment. He did all the right things, and this goes for President Bush, Sr. too. That was an area … I didn’t agree with everything that went on in that administration by any means but … when it came to foreign policy, especially foreign policy around the end of the Cold War – I think they did a really superb job.”


James Baker at the Berlin Wall

We asked Hesse the same thing: “Well I think the really extraordinary thing that I took away from that whole era was the fact that all along a lot of his successes I think were based on relationship building that he had done in prior years. For instance, I don’t think he would’ve been able to achieve with Russia, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, what he did in terms of them standing together to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait if he had not had a prior relationship built with Shevardnadze. I think that really is a very key element in the whole story is that relationship building is very important and honorable and I think that without that it would have been very difficult for them to move forward. I think because of his respect in the relationships he had with the other allies he was able to put together the coalition and getting them to pay for it was a pretty big achievement as well.”

We also asked both filmmakers to comment on Baker’s legacy, how history will perceive him: “I want to say that helping usher in a peaceful end to the Cold War was certainly, I think, on the international front that’s where I would rank him number one. On the domestic front, getting the tax reform bill of 1986 through Congress has to rank up there,” said Stange. “That was the last tax reform we had in this country and that’s almost 30 years ago. That’s crazy, but he did it, and it just goes to show how difficult it is, that no one’s been able to do it since. Somehow Baker managed to do it and because he believed in compromise and he believed in negotiation, two lost arts it seems in Washington. I was just going to say, to me, that makes him so different from so many other Washington insiders who were drawn to Washington at a new age and kind of knew that’s what they wanted to do. He really was a kind of accidental, and in some ways, reluctant Washington power broker.”


James Baker with President Ronald Reagan

“Gosh, that’s very difficult to say because there were so many things he did that were influential to country and the world,” said Hesse. “I think helping to guide the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War was pretty demonstrative in our history. The Madrid Peace Talks is a pretty major accomplishment as well, getting all of the players together at one table. I don’t know, I would say that when Shevardnadze and he stood shoulder to shoulder together condemning the Iraqi War, which was one of Russia’s allies, that he really felt that was the end of the Cold War. That was a pretty big achievement. I think he feels the Madrid Peace Conference was a pretty big one as well. I would have to go back to a modified line that David Gergen gave that he’s perceived as one of the greatest Secretary of States in our time. I would expand that and I would say he’s probably going to be viewed as one of the greatest statesman of our time.”

So where is Baker now?  Gone fishin’ as they say. But Eric wanted to add that “He’s pretty busy. He gets involved in a lot of things. Every president has called him for various things over the years. It’s things that they don’t want to have end up in the newspapers.”  Really?  Do you think President Obama has called him?  “Oh, yeah.”

James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work will premiere on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 from 8:30-10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.

James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work preview