Review of “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III” by Peter Baker

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The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
688 pages
Doubleday
Published: September 2020

Published last month, “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III” is the product of seven years of work by husband-and-wife team Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. Peter Baker (no relation to James) is chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and the author of books on George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s presidency and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Glasser is a writer for The New Yorker and CNN global affairs analyst.

This biography’s most basic strength is the extensive research underlying its preparation including more than two-hundred interviews of James Baker’s friends, family, colleagues, political enemies…and at least three former presidents. And while the authors interviewed Baker on at least two-dozen occasions, this is not an authorized biography – or hagiography. It is generally complimentary of its Baker’s life and legacy but does not shy away his weaknesses (both real and perceived).

Most readers will find the narrative exceptionally fluid, informative, penetrating and endlessly engaging. For much of its run the book puts the reader in the room with Baker – whether he is managing a presidential campaign, negotiating tax legislation or cajoling a foreign head-of-state to achieve a diplomatic goal. The liberal inclusion of in-the-moment dialogue often causes the narrative to read like a script from Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning television series The West Wing filled with witty banter and clever exchanges.

The heart of this book is clearly the four-hundred pages which cover Baker’s years inside the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential administrations. These years – from 1980 to 1992 – saw Baker wear several hats including White House chief of staff, campaign manager, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State. This is also the period when he wielded almost unparalleled power and influence in Washington.

But the most valuable aspect of the biography is not its review of Baker’s job performance or an audit of his strengths and weaknesses. Rather, it is the authors’ ongoing exploration and evaluation of his extraordinarily close, uncommonly synergistic, and occasionally competitive partnership with George H.W. Bush – a friendship that lasted six decades.

At times, the biography can be more about the era than the man – though not to a fault. Baker lived, and operated, in momentous times and some of the events in which he played a part were much larger than any one person. Fortunately the text never strays far from Baker.

Aficionados of scholarly biographies are also likely to observe this book has a tendency to feel less like weighty, consequential history than an easy-to-read popular biography given its extensive reliance on quoted dialogue (much of which emanates from taped interviews or diary entries…but some of which seems to have emerged di fideli from the memory of interviewees decades after unrecorded moments or events).

And occasionally – particularly in the book’s earliest and in its last pages – the narrative becomes needlessly consumed with Donald Trump’s recent political ascension and the attendant deterioration in the political tone of the times.

But overall, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have written an extremely interesting, remarkably informative and highly readable biography of an accomplished political strategist and manager, trusted aide and skilled diplomat. Anyone interested in the pragmatic use of political power, or in James Baker’s life and legacy in particular, will find this biography both extraordinarily rewarding and revealing.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars