Of All the President's Men, Jim Baker Is No. 1 at Reeling in the Biggies—Like the Tax Bill
Consider. Richard Nixon had his humorless H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, Gerald Ford had his politically ambitious Donald Rumsfeld, and Jimmy Carter felt comfortable only with the counsel of a down-home campaign strategist like Hamilton Jordan. But while Reagan has placed two of his old-time aides from California, Ed Meese and Mike Deaver, in critical policy and scheduling posts, the key White House job has fallen to Texan James Addison Baker III, 51, who only eight weeks before the 1980 Republican Convention was campaign manager for Reagan's opponent, George Bush. Furthermore, Baker had engineered the Ford campaign that denied Reagan the 1976 GOP nomination.
So what does it say about the President that he went after Baker when George Bush dropped out of the race, and later installed him at his right elbow in the White House? For one thing, the President apparently doesn't hold grudges; also, he must be a pragmatist in reaching for top-notch managerial skills, even if those skills were honed at his expense. At the critical level of personal compatibility, the President seems genuinely at ease with Baker, a millionaire lawyer who habitually wears monogrammed shirts and fancy cowboy boots—yet who, in private, relishes loading up with a juicy chaw of Red Man tobacco. And like Reagan, Baker was once a Democrat, making his own party switch in 1970.
Reagan's trust in the Baker-Meese-Deaver troika has been amply vindicated during his steamroller First 200 Days, but never as dramatically as on March 30. "When we were first called, we were told the President was not hit," recalls Baker. "Then we were told he was hit. And when we got to the hospital, we found his condition was much more serious than we'd been told.
"We set up a command post," he continues, "and were in touch with the Situation Room at the White House and the Vice-President on the aircraft. But nothing we did would have interfered with the chain of command for national security. We didn't have the 'black bag,' or anything like that—a military decision would have gone to the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense and on down."
Until that crisis, the troika had been low-profile, but since then their influence with the President has become publicly recognized—and none more so than Jim Baker's.
F. Scott Fitzgerald contended that action is character. In the opinion of one veteran GOP strategist, Baker moved from Bush to Reagan "because he has a healthy appetite for power." Protests Baker, "It wasn't inconsistent or opportunistic. George was on the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. While I was working for the presidential nominee, I was also working for the ticket." In any event, a White House staffer remembers that initially, "Baker was like the No. 1 draft choice on a football team—the regulars waited for him to show he could cut it for our guy."
His spot on the roster was not long in coming. Baker was one of the few who urged Reagan to debate Carter because "I had watched him demolish everybody in debate during the primaries." And moments before the Big Face-Off last October, Baker slipped his man a note: "Just remember to chuckle." Reagan remembered; his on-camera congeniality ("There you go again") was thought to have influenced the huge swing in voter sentiment the following week. The day after the election Baker was packing for Texas when Reagan called to ask him to become Chief of Staff. "No one was as shocked as I was," recalls Baker, who doesn't know if Bush or anyone else lobbied for him with the President-elect. "I get along well with Nancy Reagan," he acknowledges, "and some have said she was part of the reason I was picked." Whatever got him there, he has not been reticent in giving the President advice, or acting on his behalf.
On Day One after the inauguration, Secretary of State Haig fired in a memo that was seen as a bid for extraordinary foreign policy powers. Baker urged Reagan to "nip it in the bud," which he did by appointing Vice-President Bush as head of crisis management. Last month it was Baker who personally smoothed the objections of right-to-life groups to Supreme Court appointee Sandra O'Connor. And during the recent CIA flap, Baker dampened the fire by leaning on Director William Casey to ditch crony Max Hugel as the agency's head of covert operations, then stamped out the last embers by signaling Casey's chief critic, Barry Goldwater, to relent.
But none of Baker's feats has been as complex—or far-reaching—as his quarterbacking of the President's budget and tax cut bills. (A year earlier Baker's candidate, George Bush, had mocked these policies as "voodoo economics.") At early brainstorming sessions, recalls Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, "I thought I might know more about finances than Jim, so I told him, 'I'll provide the ammunition and you do the political maneuvering,' but after a while he was suggesting tax policy too." During the skirmishing, says a Capitol Hill insider, "Baker was not terribly visible—but then, remember that Eisenhower was in London while Patton took Europe. Baker never left his desk, but he told the President when to play the good guy, when to play the bad guy, when to call a Senator or a Congressman." Says Jack Kemp, coauthor of the basic Reagan economic platform: "With all due respect to the President and Secretary Regan, it was Baker who got the budget and tax package passed."
"Study hard. Work hard. And stay out of politics." So said Baker's grandfather, who built the law firm of Baker & Botts into Houston's largest. Jim studied hard: prep school back East, Princeton '52 and, after the Marines, law school at the University of Texas. Prevented by an anti-nepotism rule from joining Baker & Botts, he signed on with another Houston law firm after graduation and became a partner within a decade. And though Mary Stuart McHenry, the college sweetheart he married in 1953, found time to be active in precinct-level politics even as she bore four sons (James IV, now 26; Mike, 25; Johnny, 21; and Doug, 20), Baker was, by his own description, apolitical.
Then in 1968, at age 36, Mary Stuart learned she had breast cancer. "She was ill for 16 months," says Baker, who still cannot talk easily about it. "Sixteen months is not a lot of time. And when she died 11 years ago this past February, the oldest boy was 15, the youngest 8.1 think there is a tendency for children to blame the surviving parent, as if to ask, 'How could you let this happen?' It was rough. People pitched in and helped—my friends were great."
One close friend and frequent tennis partner was Texas Congressman George Bush, who had announced his candidacy for the Senate. "Within a month after Mary Stuart died, he asked me to run his Houston campaign," says Baker. "I think he did it to give me something to do, to get me involved." Though Jim says "I had never done anything in politics before and was in fact still a Democrat," he helped Bush—a Republican—carry Houston even though he lost the statewide race to Lloyd Bentsen. "I went back to practicing law," Baker recalls, "but it didn't hold the same fascination." In 1972, only two years after becoming a Republican, he ran part of Nixon's Texas campaign, and subsequently became state GOP finance chairman.
Meanwhile Baker had begun dating Susan Garrett Winston. The Bakers and the Winstons had long been social friends, and after Susan was widowed, she and Jim married in 1973. Susan, her daughter and two sons moved into his house. "We recognized it wasn't going to be easy to put seven kids from two families together," says Jim, "and boy, it wasn't, that first year." Adds Susan, now 42, "There were times when we wondered if the roof would stay on the house for all the emotion and conflict. But we've survived—very well." Both feel the final meshing came in 1977, when their own child, Mary Bonner Baker, was born.
Despite his grandfather's view of politics, Baker was hooked on it by 1975, when Jerry Ford—at Bush's suggestion—named him Deputy Secretary of Commerce. In 1978 he ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General of Texas, and the next year agreed to manage Bush's 1980 presidential bid. Baker directed an above-the-belt campaign, refusing to raise the issue of Reagan's age. He now admits that the No. 2 slot on the ticket "was at least in my mind always as a fallback." Just before the California primary he talked Bush into withdrawing. "If we'd stayed any longer," he insists, "we wouldn't have made the ticket." Both candidate and manager benefited from the decision, though in some ways it has put a certain distance between them. "I frankly don't see George as much socially except at events that both the President and Vice-President attend," laments Baker, "but he understands where my loyalties lie politically. We're close friends—and we always will be."
Today Jim, Susan and Mary Bonner live in the Bakers' $715,000 home on D.C.'s swank Foxhall Road. Keeping track of all the family is Susan's job: "I am the chief executive officer of this operation. Jimmy does absolutely nothing around here. He doesn't even know where a light bulb is." Though they maintain a ranch in Texas, Baker's second home is the office, 50 feet from Reagan's, where he logs 14-hour days. With family assets of more than $3.7 million (his portion of which is held in blind trust), he can easily afford to continue in public service—perhaps, as rumors have it, in a Cabinet post in years to come, or even another run for elective office.
But Baker refuses to speculate publicly about anything beyond the remaining 41 months of Ronald Reagan's term. Confident that he, Meese and Deaver will continue to serve their boss well, he says, "We haven't the backbiting, the turf-fighting, the undercutting that you see in a lot of White Houses. Perhaps it's because we've all done more in the private sector. We're older, and I think that kind of experience makes us tend to weigh consequences a little longer."
Baker glances down at his telephone, which has 26 buttons and resembles a jukebox when a crisis erupts, and on which he'll cope with the probable flash points of autumn: Social Security, the MX missile system, the B-1 bomber, voting rights, a program to establish tax incentives for inner-city businesses, a new attack on crime. Then he says, "There was an article that said Jim Baker doesn't make enemies. But in my job it's axiomatic: Somebody has to take the heat for a Presidency to succeed. I don't like being the heavy—that part of it is no fun."
In fact, he recently confided to a friend, "This job is a bun-buster." Yet an unimpeachable source contends that Baker's posterior is still very much intact. Earlier this month Jerry Ford visited Washington and spent time with his old strategist. Reports the former President: "Jim told me he loves his job."