Finally—after decades of demonization, derision and horrific abuse—it’s heartening to see a forthright tribute to a woefully neglected species of humanity: namely, the socially connected, deeply privileged, awesomely powerful white Anglo-Saxon male.
James Addison Baker III—whose rise from the country clubs of Houston’s posh River Oaks neighborhood to the 7th floor of Foggy Bottom as U.S. Secretary of State is the subject of a sometimes fawning PBS documentary that airs Tuesday night—is unquestionably a public-spirited person of genuine talent.
It’s not going too far to call him a patriot—and, in terms of hard cash, a self-sacrificing one. While his fellow oil barons and white-shoe lawyers were content to line their pockets, Baker—sponsored by his best friend and doubles partner, George H.W. Bush—served in a series of high-level government positions that paid a tiny fraction of the filthy lucre he could have accumulated.
Indeed, back in 1985, when he was transitioning from White House chief of staff to Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan, Baker’s net worth was reportedly a measly $7 million.
He was, the documentary argues, over and over, extremely good at his job—which, whatever his specific job title happened to be at any given moment, consisted of embodying a Texas-twanged Machiavellian who could shiv his political adversaries with silky cunning, accurately calculate the doable vs. the impossible, and torque the process to his advantage while charming the socks off preening Beltway journalists (a number of whom offer effusive testimonials in this 90-minute celebration, heroically titled James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work).
NBC’s Tom Brokaw—a South Dakota native who would not be out of place shooting wild turkeys or fly-fishing with the now-84-year-old Baker—narrates the film, which early on shows its hero alighting onto a lonely dirt road from a gas-guzzling SUV, outfitted in camouflage and toting a hunting rifle in the pre-dawn darkness, ready to kill something.
“In a time before compromise was a dirty word,” Brokaw intones, “when political parties worked together, he was a master of negotiation, always able to find common ground.”
Another revered Washington insider, former Wall Street Journal editor Alan Murray, elaborates on the documentary’s theme of nobly splitting the difference. Murray turns to the camera to lament: “Where are the Jim Bakers? Where are the people who know how to cut deals when the deal needs to be cut?”
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Baker’s tennis partner and occasional informal adviser when he was covering him as a beat reporter—is also among the Washington media elite who make frequent and admiring appearances, along with CBS News’s Lesley Stahl and Times wise man Hedrick Smith.
“I knew I was watching something historic,” Friedman declaims at one point, recounting a joint press conference in Moscow, where Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze together condemned the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, until that moment a Soviet client state.
As the film neglects to mention, Baker, who was attempting to jump-start the chronically stalled Middle East peace process, took a suggestion from Friedman that he perform a camera-ready stunt during a congressional hearing.
Per Friedman (according to Baker’s autobiography), the Secretary of State heckled the intransigent Israeli government, reciting the White House phone number and advising the Israelis to let their fingers do the walking.
It’s too bad, as well, that The Man Who Made Washington Work doesn’t explore one of the more effective tricks in Baker’s playbook—his artful courting of the Fourth Estate.
Baker sits for several on-camera interviews, and it would have been enlightening (and certainly instructive for today’s less adept public officials) to get him on the record concerning his virtuosic press-flattering techniques.
I would also have liked to hear Baker on the subject of his well-known practice of returning every phone call from a member of Congress, but doing so in the middle of the night when offices were empty and he could leave a quick voicemail message without having to waste time in annoying conversation.
Also heaping laurels on Baker are Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and the 6-foot-5 David Gergen, who worked for Baker in the Reagan White House; Baker, occasionally irritated by Gergen’s penchant for arriving late to meetings, teasingly nicknamed him “Tall.”
While demonstrating the reality of Baker’s power and influence—and his concrete, if in retrospect incremental, accomplishments of passing the 1986 tax reform bill and wrangling Arab and Israelis leaders to a Middle East peace conference in Madrid—the documentary offers the illusion of objectivity.
It spends a few minutes on Baker’s less than praiseworthy role as treasury secretary in sweeping the malfeasance of the reckless savings and loan industry under the rug, resulting years later in a costly taxpayer bailout; it also briefly, and mildly, tsk-tsks over his post-government money-making activities exploiting his golden connections.
There’s no mention at all of the slaughter of an estimated tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds after the end of Gulf War I, when Baker and Bush, who encouraged them to rise up against the cruel dictator, left them to Saddam’s tender mercies. It was, by some accounts, Baker’s worst failure as secretary of state.
Nor does the film explore a notorious quote attributed to Baker—and denied by him—when American supporters of Israel complained that the Republican secretary of state was being too tough on the Jewish state. “Fuck the Jews; they don’t vote for us,” he allegedly exclaimed in the presence of Bush I’s Housing Secretary, the late Jack Kemp.
It must have been child’s play for Baker to finagle this near-hagiography of himself after prevailing in the ideological knife fights of Ronald Reagan’s White House—where right-wingers like Edwin Meese considered him a squishy moderate—and obliterating Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis with demagogic and racially charged attacks in the elder Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign; to say nothing of having his way with the likes of failed presidential candidate Al Gore, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and the clueless Meese.
The documentary, after all, was bankrolled by charitable Texas foundations and Baker’s super-rich friends in the oil and gas industry. Also conspicuous among the donors is Washington billionaire David Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, the international private equity behemoth.
As a “senior counselor” for Carlyle after his decades in government, Baker traveled the world doing what he apparently does better than anyone—schmoozing heads of state, seizing the advantage, and making deals. Compared to Jim Baker, self-proclaimed "Art of the Deal" guru Donald Trump is a turkey in the woods.