“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” President Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions amid the Russia investigation.
But now, instead of the notorious lawyer who defended Joseph McCarthy, mob dons and Trump, among others, a more fitting presidential plea may be “Where’s my James Baker?”
Baker, a model of rectitude in contrast to Cohn’s recklessness, led the recount case in the 2000 election that elevated George W. Bush to the presidency.
And in fact, presidential adviser (and Trump son-in-law) Jared Kushner reportedly said he was seeking a “James Baker-like” figure to lead the legal efforts regarding this year’s election.
Unfortunately for Trump — and the country — there’s less reverence now for James Baker-like figures, especially since today’s disfigured political culture discounts diplomats like Baker or others who have committed careers, and lives, to public service as part of “the swamp.”
Of course, in Baker’s case, he wasn’t just a diplomat, but secretary of state. That after stints as secretary of the Treasury, chief-of-staff to two presidents, chairman of five presidential campaigns and other vital assignments.
So Trump — and for that matter Biden and the country — could use a few figures like Baker, and not just for post-vote political and legal proceedings, but for postelection governance.
Baker’s consequential career in both politics and governance is the subject of a compelling new biography, “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III.” It’s co-written by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Baker (no relation to James), the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, and Susan Glasser, a New Yorker writer covering the Trump White House. Both will take part in a virtual Global Minnesota event on Monday.
The well-written and well-reviewed biography chronicles Baker’s incredible influence in the Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush administrations amid an era often marked by global trial and national triumph.
“Baker brought the aura of a winner and someone who was politically competent,” Peter Baker said in an interview. Democrats working for Al Gore during the recount case “told us that once they realized Baker had been appointed to run Bush’s efforts that they knew they’d lost.”
That’s in no small part due to James Baker’s stature at state and other stops in his stellar career.
“He has been both a political maestro, having run five presidential campaigns, as well as a statesman on the world stage affecting large historic forces around the world as secretary of state,” Peter Baker said. “He brought that kind of pedigree to the task and he also brought a unique skill set that really made him the most effective operator of his generation.
“He was the guy everybody sought as the person to get stuff done.”
Getting stuff done. Yeah, that actually used to happen in Washington.
And Baker helped get a lot of stuff done. Big stuff, like bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform; the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and the perilous-but-peaceful end of the Cold War; building an international coalition for a true Mission-Accomplished moment in the first Gulf War; a major Mideast peace effort and much more.
“Through it all,” the authors write, James Baker “was the archetype of a style of American politics and governance that today seems lost, an approach focused on compromise over confrontation, deal-making over disagreement and pragmatism over purity.”
Baker was more of a fixer than fixated on ideology, which wasn’t such a rarity back in a more functional, albeit still political, Washington.
The book is “not only Baker’s story, but the story of Washington and how our politics have changed so much since his era,” Peter Baker said, adding that Washington “is the second protagonist in our book.”
Nowadays it seems that the capital is cast as antagonist.
The Beltway’s political culture “has changed so drastically,” Peter Baker said. “You come away with the understanding of how things are so different. Not to say it wasn’t ruthless in the past; we shouldn’t over-romanticize the ’80s and the ’90s, but the structure of politics has changed and argues against any kind of collaboration and compromise.”
Elections, Peter Baker said, “were about coming to power in order to do something once you are there. Today it seems like the opposite — it feels like people govern in order to set up the next election.”
As an example, the author said that James Baker “would never have allowed seven months to go by without hammering out a second COVID-relief bill.”
Biden “comes from the Baker era in the sense of wanting to get stuff done,” Peter Baker said. Sure, over a four-plus decade capital career he had his run of ruthless and rueful moments, just like James Baker. But Biden, just like Trump, could use a James Baker — or a baker’s dozen of them — if or when he ends up in the White House.
Despite the ideological differences, Peter Baker believes that “Joe Biden is much more of Jim Baker’s kind of Democrat than Donald Trump is Jim Baker’s kind of Republican.”
James Baker never endorsed Trump but did vote for him. Yet when Peter Baker asked James Baker on Thursday about the current controversy over ballot tabulation in the remaining undecided states, he told the Times correspondent that, “We never said don’t count the votes. That’s a very hard decision to make in a democracy.”
Comparing the eras, James Baker said there were “huge differences.” For one, he said, “our whole argument was that the votes have been counted and they’ve been counted and they’ve been counted and it’s time to end the process. That’s not exactly the message that I heard on election night. And so I think it’s pretty hard to be against counting the votes.”
As it should be. Democracy doesn’t belong to the Democratic or Republican parties, but to the American people, whose votes should be counted even if the Trump campaign does in fact find a James Baker-like figure to argue otherwise.
Or, as Baker’s best friend George H.W. Bush said on election night 1992, “Here is the way I see it. Here’s the way we see it and the country should see it: The people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.