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LIfe at the Top
on October 31, 2006
You read a book like this to get a feel for what's it would be like to be considered the GOLD STANDARD in electoral politics. Nobody in modern times has had the success or the good fortune to be on the winning side of so many Presidential elections. One of Baker's competitors is James Carville, the man who more than any other, helped Bill Clinton to defeat George HW Bush and his manager James A. Baker III in 1992. It was Carville who referred to Baker as the Gold Standard.
To understand James Baker, you have to understand where he is coming from. He was originally a Houston based "Society Lawyer" from a prominent family which allowed him to attend Princeton University. A "Society Lawyer" simply caters to the needs of very rich people. Whatever it is they need, the lawyer fixes it, quite a nice life if you can do it.
Baker also has a wonderful, gregarious personality. In person, he is charming to a fault, and a total class act. You have to like the guy. The question one needs to ask is how did Baker parlay a general legal practice in Houston, and morph it into becoming probably the second most important person in government under two successive Presidents.
Even more interesting is how did Baker survive his entire tenure in Washington without being either destroyed, or contaminated by the system. He was able to walk away from his experiences, which were quite extensive, without anybody laying a glove on him.
I was involved in a conversation with former President Nixon on this topic many years ago. The President felt that there were only 250,000 people in the United States that counted. These people own the media, the corporations, they control the institutions, and they have the wealth. The President felt that if you stripped this entire group of their wealth, power, and positions, in ten years, the wealth and power would be right back where it started from.
I submit to you that James Baker made himself the indispensable man to whoever he came into contact with. If you strip Baker of his power and position, within a few years he would be right back in the thick of it. Was there some luck involved? You bet there was, and this book is full of stories where so much luck was involved.
He specifically mentions in the book that being a Marine during the Korean War, he was transferred to the Mediterranean, not Korea, where most of his associates perished in the war. Was it the luck of the draw that led to his Mediterranean assignment, or string pulling? We will never know, and he's not telling.
Here's a man that was George Bush's man, (the current President's father), during the 1980 campaign when Bush went head to head against Ronald Reagan for the Republican Presidential nomination. This was the second time Baker moved against Reagan. He was also part of Ford's team when Reagan challenged the seating President for the nomination in 1976.
What happens as a result? Reagan wins the nomination in 1980, and Baker joins the Reagan team. Having done a great job during the election process, he somehow manages against all odds to maneuver himself into the position of Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan. Previous to this, Reagan had always surrounded himself with people with very long track records with him. How did Baker manage to leap over every one of the loyalists?
The answer is that this is a very SPECIAL MAN. I have known a lot of people in Washington up close and personal. If you are perceptive, and interested, it really doesn't take long to figure out who's real, who's a phony, who gets things done, and who doesn't. There are very few people in James Baker's league. There are only two other people I can compare him to.
The first was Abe Fortas, a former Supreme Court Justice who was one of the most brilliant men to ever serve in government. I value a picture I have of him sitting in Lyndon Johnson's White House, not at the table, but in a seat by the window. It was obvious Fortas was pulling the strings in the room.
The second man, I would compare Baker to would be Clark Clifford. He was another magnificent power broker who served every Democratic President from Harry Truman forward for 30 years. What's interesting is that both of these men Fortas, and Clifford had problems late in their careers that tarnished their reputations. Baker remains untouched by scandal.
Nobody in the last 40 years has enjoyed better relations with the press than James Baker. I do not ever recall at any point while he served in government reading anything negative that was written about him. The only person that came close is Colin Powell, and Baker is at the game longer.
The reason is that nobody cultivated the press like James Baker. Did Baker leak to the press? He says no, but he does admit to providing background to reporters without allowing attribution back to himself. It was more than background. Baker probably provided anything, and everything the press required in order to keep his reputation intact. There is no other explanation for the continuous favorable press this man received during his entire stay in Washington DC, a truly cutthroat town.
He also doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody else. He simply doesn't burn bridges. This attitude goes all the way back to his days as a society lawyer. If you never say anything negative about people, you have an opportunity to have them all as clients. Everybody loves James Baker. I particularly enjoy reading a book like this because you pick up certain ideas, and possibilities about politics that you will just never learn any other way, because there's just so much noise out there that it's overwhelming. Let me give you a couple of notions:
· "When wounded, stop the bleeding immediately" - Here Baker is telling us that when it goes bad for you in politics, you have to deal with the issue immediately and kill the issue. Don't wait, or you're dead. An example would be Senator Kerry's failure to respond to the misleading Swift Boat accusations made against him in the 04 Presidential election cycle.
· "First time out, win or lose, you learn a lot" - He's telling you that there is no substitute for experience. You may not win the race the first time, as Baker lost with Ford in 1976, but it prepared him for 1980, where he became the gold standard in politics.
· "Proximity is POWER" - Yes, absolutely. You want an office close to the President. The closer the office, the more power you absolutely have, and are perceived to have.
· "Tax hikes without spending restraints never balance the budget, Congress always spends the new money and more" - How brilliant is this statement. It explains perfectly the last six years under a Republican dominated Presidency, and Congress. Whoever is in power spends money. It doesn't matter who it is, or what party he's from.
· "Image Trumps Substance" - Wow, did he get this one right. It's all about PERCEPTION, or better yet, take credit for all miracles occurring within 50 miles.
· "Better to assume the worst, and try to do something about it, than to assume the best, and get blindsided" - This is a lesson we could all take with us.
· "Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance - He learned this from his father, and mentions it many times throughout the book. Practicing what he called the five P's held him in good steed throughout his career, and he continues to practice this behavior today.
If you have an interest in politics and history, you would do well to take the time to peruse this book. It's an easy read, Baker is not looking to sell you, or persuade you in this book. Read it, and you will learn what life at the top of Washington was like during a very interesting period in our nation's history. Good luck.