The Incredible Influence of James A. Baker III

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The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

Seven years ago, when the husband-and-wife reporting team of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser began working on their enthralling, comprehensive biography of James A. Baker III, Donald Trump was a cartoonish reality television star and huckster whose worldview — to the extent he defined it — seemed laughably disconnected from where the United States and global trends were headed.

The core tension that Baker (no relation to his subject) and Glasser must overcome in “The Man Who Ran Washington” is making James Baker — the Washington insider, Republican stalwart and statesman who played an indisputably central role in shaping major events for a half-century — seem relevant today. Indeed, they themselves argue that the world Baker helped mold through cunning, meticulous organization and tactical prowess has faded into history. From Trump’s xenophobia and skepticism about American international leadership to the Republican Party’s takeover by someone Baker deems “crazy,” a reader can have the impression that the authors’ accounting of Baker’s achievements is tinted in sepia.

Yet the life story of the man Barack Obama’s national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon calls “the most important unelected official since World War II” is relevant and timely for two reasons. The first is that it provides deep insight into Baker’s strengths at diplomacy — skills that will become even more important as America’s influence ebbs in the coming years. The former secretary of state’s experiences as a public servant offer timeless lessons in how to use personal relationships, broad-based coalitions and tireless negotiating to advance United States interests.

The second reason this book matters now is that even though Baker sees himself as temperamentally and philosophically opposite to Donald Trump, his silence in the face of Trump’s outrages reflects the broader complicity of the so-called “Republicans who know better.” Although Baker agonized longer than many ambivalent Trump voters, he — unlike his closest friend, former President George H. W. Bush (who voted for Hillary Clinton) — rationalized that Republican Party loyalty, judicial appointments, tax cuts, deregulation and maintaining his own White House “access” would make it worthwhile to keep his concerns to himself. “Becoming a Never Trumper would have meant giving up whatever modest influence he had left,” the authors write. “Whether he actually needed it anymore was not the point.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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