The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III (New York: Doubleday, 2020) is by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.
Review by Michael D. Mosettig
This aptly titled biography of James Baker reminds us that many of the same skills and tactics he spun in his Washington ascent also served him well in Europe. As U.S. Secretary of State, as in his domestic jobs, Baker often had to deal with allies as if they were adversaries and found adversaries critical to his record of forging deals and agreements that orginally appeared elusive or impossible to achieve.
By necessity, the husband and wife journalist team of Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser focus most of their meticulously reported and fluidly written 585 pages on Baker’s rise from an obscure post in the Commerce Department, to White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, then Secretary of Treasury and ultimately to Secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush.
With much dexterity, the authors delve into the relationship and near sibling rivalry between Bush, the Texas transplant from Greenwich, Connecticut, and the third generation of Houston legal aristocracy. Baker may have felt he would have been an equally good, maybe even better, president. But Bush was elected to the job in 1988, albeit thanks largely to Baker’s skills as his campaign manager. Baker showed no such vote seeking talent as a would be presidential aspirant or one-time Texas candidate himself.
What followed from 1989 to 1992, a profund a time of global change as any since World War II, hinged in no small measure to that relationship. Not since any team from President Thomas Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison had the occupants of these two posts been so attached by friendship, experience, background and temperament.
To put it bluntly, when Baker spoke to international leaders and decision makers, they knew he was speaking for his president. Decisive, possibly critical, when people on the other side of the table are looking for hints of division and disunity they might exploit to their advantage in the government of the major superpower.
Now, in an apparent longer term trend of American disengagement from Europe, what comes across is a synchronizing of trans-Atlantic gears as Germany was re-united peacefully, as the Soviet Union collapsed with minimal chaos and as the U.S. led a huge coalition to a quick military triumph in the Persian Gulf.
As the authors detail, relationships within the alliance were neither always smooth nor seamless. Chief among the skeptics was Margaret Thatcher, whose instinctive fears of German unity, so strongly pushed by President Bush, reflected the feelings of so many of her constituents nurtured in two world wars with the Germans. The authors assert she frankly distrusted Baker as an operator and deal maker whose global currency pacts as Treasury Secretary were disastrous for Britain.
The authors detail as much as any book in English, the complexity of dealing with the then West German government as the Cold War dissolved and the Wall came down. Not only were Washington and Baker dealing with two Germanys (East and West) but with two separate west German governments, those of CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl and FDP Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. At one critical Brussels meeting, Bush talked with Kohl while Baker deliberately took Genscher to a separate dinner to help diminish confusion. (The authors, by the way, seem to love describing often and in detail what food and drink were consumed at these meals and even what color chairs the officials sat in).
Curiously, for those of us consumed in post-war European and French history, France rates only occasional mention. The country hardly had turned supine to the United States or eager for one Germany, but President Francois Mitterrand and his team, implicitly appreciated the unemotional statecraft employed by their American counterparts. In the process, Mitterrand stoically endured bumpy rides on Bush’s power boat off the Maine coast.
One place in Europe where this cold blooded approach took a heavy toll was in disintegrating Yugoslavia. It barely gets mentioned in memoirs from that era, and the authors make clear the main decision makers wanted nothing to do with its conflicts. Baker and two top officials who had served there, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and deputy secretary Laurence Eagleburger regarded the place as a permanent snake pit of warring nationalities better left alone. It fell to the Clinton Administration, which never gained the diplomatic plaudits of its predecessor, to sort out with diplomacy and military force.
The authors also accept the explanation, despite what they describe as volumes of commentary and think tank documents, that Baker never explicitly promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to turn Eastern and Central European nations into NATO allies.
As the authors record, Baker, whose father served in France in World War I, spent a bigger share of his 283 days out of the U.S. in geographical Europe than we might remember. That included 29 in the Soviet Union and successor states, 13 in Britain, 11 in Germany and nine in France. And for future and wannabe diplomats to note how Baker operated as Secretary of State: employing his legally honed skills to re-phrase and move words and paragraphs to reach agreements, spending much time at the White House and operating with a tight knit cadre that kept most careeer officials at a remove.
Baker was hosting a State Department luncheon on November 8, 1989 for Philippine President Corazone Aquino when an aide handed him a typed note that East Germany had opened the Wall. Added was the helpful sentence that EUR (the European bureau) would soon be sending an advisory. As Baker left the lunch and headed to the White House, there is no indication whether that advisory ever was written or read.
Michael D. Mosettig is a former senior producer foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour and SAIS adjunct.