James A. Baker III

James A. Baker III

Photo credit: Misc.

“This is like Hollywood Squares,” quipped Steve Clemons, Editor-at-Large The Hill, as he welcomed 500 Zoom guests to a book party in honor of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, authors of The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III named a ‘Best Book of The Year’ by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, Fortune and Bloomberg.

“I read this book a couple of months ago and then just ran through it again and I found it to be so illuminating of the dimensions of serious policy-making and politics,” added Clemons.  “It was more than just a regular political biography of Washington; it was really as much as a guide to how this town works. I think it’s a great lexicon of not only the times, but how politics works.”

Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Washington. Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times

About the book: “For a quarter-century, from the end of Watergate to the aftermath of the Cold War, no Republican won the presidency without his help or ran the White House without his advice. James Addison Baker III was the indispensable man for four presidents because he understood better than anyone how to make Washington work at a time when America was shaping events around the world. The Man Who Ran Washington is a page-turning portrait of a power broker who influenced America’s destiny for generations. His story is a case study in the acquisition, exercise, and preservation of power in late twentieth-century America and the story of Washington and the world in the modern era–how it once worked and how it has transformed into an era of gridlock and polarization. This masterly biography by two brilliant observers of the American political scene is destined to become a classic.” Doubleday

“We thought the story told us a lot about the story of Washington both then and now,” said Peter. “We started this book seven years before Trump even came on the scene. But then of course, once Trump comes on the scene that only added from our point of view of how important this story really was because it [shows] the contrast between the Baker Washington and the Trump Washington which was so striking that I thought it reinforced the importance of the story.”

“The good news is Peter and I are still on speaking terms having written this book together,” laughed Susan. “It’s not a celebration of power. It’s much more a case study in it, but it is also a moment in time when I think arguably – especially the late cold war – it was not a moment when American national politics had the luxury of basically sort of endlessly shouting at each other as an excuse for doing nothing. And right now it’s not only that we have a different breed of politician, I would say, but also that we have a different setup and a different fundamental structure to our politics that has made it harder and harder for someone to come in. But the problem is no matter how great of a deal maker you are, no matter how skilled I think of a negotiator, there’s also this question of the structure of Washington and fundamentally that dysfunction being built into our politics in a way that’s much more profound even than this period of time we were studying. So for both of us, it really was a great opportunity. And as Peter said, we could have kept going for some more time, but eventually even the most tolerant publisher gets sick of it.”

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

On the competitive nature between Bush and Baker:

“What made the story of their relationship so interesting and really one of the sub themes of this book is that it precedes politics. You have a lot of people in politics whose alliances with some other figure and these alliances are important to their success mutually or otherwise. There are very, very few examples where you have somebody at the level of a President, a Secretary of State who had a personal bond, a personal friendship that came before the political relationship. So the two of them meet at the country club, tennis courts in Houston and their families get together for Thanksgiving, for touch football, and Christmas cocktails and so forth years before Baker eventually kind of enters the political arena. And when we interviewed George H. W. Bush, before he passed, he used the phrase, he used the term brother to describe Baker and Baker used that term about Bush as well. And of course like any brothers, any siblings, there are rivalries. They’re both super competitive people from the tennis courts to politics – that competition among themselves and with others defined to some extent their relationship.”  Peter Baker

“I think over the years, they both learned how to accommodate their respective ambitions and still preserve their friendship. I think that was tested at times, certainly during the 92 campaign it was tested significantly, but I think their relationship was born outside politics and I think it grew over time to accommodate politics.” Jim Ciccone, former Assistant to the President.

“The element I love in the book is he wasn’t James A. Baker the 3rd, he was really James A. Baker, the 4th. They skipped a Baker. One of the powerful moments was at the end of the book when he’s in his eighties and he meets a branch of his family that is the black wing of his family. He meets this gentlemen who says: ‘Hi, I’m James Baker too.’ And this was because in this line of powerful Bakers who hung out and knew Sam Houston, there was another branch of the family that was hidden away. And I was asking myself, did Baker evolve, did his character evolve? ” Steve Clemons

“That is also one of my favorite scenes and Baker loves that story and he loves telling it. And the part that he loves is that this is a clan of black Bakers in and around the town of Huntsville, Texas which was where the family originally moved to in Texas before they ended up in Houston. {He} loves that they were like, you know, the pillars of black Huntsville and  super successful and leaders. I’m really glad you asked that because that was a question that I had. And that was the part of the story that we really didn’t know very much about until we worked on this. His dad was a genuine world war one hero, but an extremely demanding even micro-managing figure in Baker’s life. And I think first of all, he had that in common with George Herbert Walker Bush in that they both were trying to escape the long burden of both family history and legacy, and also in particular their father. So I think they bonded over that to a certain extent.” Susan Glasser

“Andy (Card) said it and Susan implied that he had a thin skin. What did he (Baker) think of the book?” Amb. Tom Korologos, American Diplomat

“He knows not to tell us he likes the book too much because he knows we would think that as journalists, that would mean we went overboard too far; but he also doesn’t want to trash it because, you know, it’s a mostly good book about him, right? So I think he’s told us very generally that he thinks it’s fair. He doesn’t agree with everything. We didn’t show it to him. And yet Baker being Baker, he got a copy of the galley. Anyway, even though we didn’t give it to him because that’s what he does. He found a source, he got himself a copy of the galley. And we learned about this. We said, ‘Oh, okay, he’s got the galley. Now it’s going to happen. He’s going to read through it. He’s going to argue with us about all these different points. He’s going to say why don’t you quote this person? Or I don’t think that’s the way it happened.’  So we were a little nervous about that. And his office calls up and said, ‘Hey, he’s sending over to you two or three pages of corrections that he thinks you ought to think about it.’ Like, okay, here it goes.’ And to his credit, all of the things he said were strictly factual. They were, ‘I had a gun. I had a rifle that day, not a shotgun or so-and-so wasn’t on the phone with me that day so-and-so was on the plane with so-and-so, wasn’t all strictly factual.’ He didn’t take an issue with one single piece of interpretation. He was respectful of our work.” Peter Baker

The above conversation has been edited for brevity purposes. For all the anecdotes and further details on the life of James A. Baker, III purchase the book here.