cover image The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. Doubleday, $35 (732p) ISBN 978-0-385-54055-1

A bygone era of bipartisan pragmatism and statesmanship is elegized in this sprawling biography of the leading advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Husband and wife journalists Baker (no relation) and Glasser (coauthors, Kremlin Rising) style James Baker as possibly “the ultimate Washington player,” noting that he shepherded landmark tax cuts through Democratic congresses as Reagan’s chief of staff and treasury secretary; negotiated the dismantling of the Soviet empire and German reunification as Bush’s secretary of state; and organized bruising political warfare while managing presidential campaigns and masterminding George W. Bush’s strategy in the 2000 election dispute. There’s plenty of West Wing backstabbing, situational ethics, and profane tirades in the authors’ vibrant narrative as Baker (aka the “Velvet Hammer”) outmaneuvers rival White House power brokers and authorizes attack ads against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. But in their telling, Baker also champions a relatively enlightened establishment politics, sidelining right-wing Republican zealots, forging relationships with liberal congressmen and communist reformers, and crafting workable domestic and international initiatives. The contrast with the current White House is pointed, resulting in an engrossing study of a kind of government leadership that readers may conclude is both obsolete and sorely needed. (May)