biographies, book reviews, Chief of Staff, James A. Baker, New Releases, Peter Baker, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Susan Glasser
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
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
Thanks for this review! This is not a person I had considered reading about and now I’m excited to read it.
A couple years ago I read Peter Baker’s book on the Bush/Cheney White House, and my younger sister knew James Baker’s youngest daughter when they were both young (I was away at college by then) so I felt compelled to try this biography out. Turned out to quite entertaining. It helps, of course, that James Baker has led a fascinating life but it doesn’t hurt that Peter Baker is a good writer and, seemingly, a great journalist.
WILLIAM F DALEY said:
First, thank you for this wonderful site. I used it as my source for reading Presidential biographies as I began my quest to read the biography of every president. It was a project I began in late 2019 and just ended in December 2020 with the Bush/Cheney book by Peter Baker. The enterprise was extremely worthwhile and I learned a lot.
It sounds like you used 2020 to your distinct advantage – that’s quite a bit of reading! Congratulations on getting through the presidents – there’s no journey quite like it!
Bob (Chicago) said:
Agreed that the Baker biography is an easy and informative read. But I fear that the authors have gotten a bit too close to the subject. For example, in the section with pictures, “…where he overwhelmed his Democratic counterpart” [during the Bush-Gore recount]. Moreover, no mention is made of one of the most consequential decisions of the Reagan White House — the Bork nomination — and the ensuing political polarization that it started. The over-use of quotes that cannot be quotes may make for a good read, but it detracts from the faith that I have in the authors’ account. Better to leave catchy banter to reruns of the West Wing.