By GWEN OREL
James A. Baker III said he would never lie to reporters.
“He might have spun, but he never lied,” Peter Baker, New York Times chief White House correspondent, said last Sunday.
James A. Baker III served as White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury for President Ronald Reagan, and as secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush – and he did not even enter politics until he was 40 years old.
Baker (no relation) appeared online with co-author and wife Susan Glasser at an Open Book/Open Mind conversation, sponsored by the Montclair Public Library, to discuss their new book “The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III.”
It’s already been named one of the 100 New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker, grew up in Montclair. Her parents still live here.
Journalist and Montclair Local Advisory Board member Jonathan Alter moderated the discussion.
“I don’t understand how either one of you sleeps,” Alter said to the couple, explaining that they wrote a large quantity of work on deadline while doing this book. “Many of us have been pulled through the past few years by your work.”
Alter said the book is a must-read for “anyone who wants to understand how power worked from 1975 to around 2007.”
He wondered about how they worked together as a couple. Former President Jimmy Carter told Alter, who has just put out a book on Carter, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” that for Carter and his wife Roslyn, “the lowest point of their entire marriage was when they wrote a book together in 1986. They were communicating by notes. An editor had to come make peace.”
“We’re still speaking, no publisher had to come and mediate,” he said. He and Glasser met in the newsroom of The Washington Post, as colleagues. “Our relationship from the beginning has been professional and personal at the same time.”
They have written a book together before, about Russia, “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.”
“We wrote it while Susan was pregnant, and turned it in the day she had the baby. This was easier, there were no contractions or labor pains,” Baker said.
Glasser said that the new book ended up taking seven years. “Thank goodness we worked on it together.” Neither had envisioned that it would take so long, but when the Trump era
began, there were distractions, she explained.
One of the sparks for the book was the realization that “Washington felt broken,” Baker said. The time of James A. Baker was a different time.
And yet, while James Baker would not endorse Trump, he would not say he wouldn’t vote for him. “We watched him struggle with it. It should have been easy. The Bushes were voting against him, and they were close friends. Also, he is the unTrump, or Trump is the unBaker, in policy and temperament. And yet he couldn’t do it. It tells you a lot about the modern Republican party,” Baker said.
But why would James A. Baker want someone he called nuts to have the nuclear codes, Alter wondered.
“That’s a good question,” Glasser said. “That’s the reason why this book is a case study in power, not a celebration of it. He had a notion that in order to wield power you have to be inside the tent. Being on the outside screaming into the wind is not anyplace he has an interest in being.”
The couple asked him this question many times over the course of five years, and he always gave them the same answer.
“He made a choice to have himself be identified as a partisan Republican, and that mattered to him more in the end,” Glasser said. “In 2016, he still had an ‘adults in the room’ scenario, which I think he had from being Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. He thought people like his friend Rex Tillerson would have a chance to create a plausible government. We didn’t hear that when we asked about 2020.” Then, she explained, he spoke more like someone who might be heard on Fox News, using Republican talking points: “I don’t like Donald Trump, but I’m really scared about left-wing Democrats and the socialism they will bring to America.”
“He is a competitive guy,” Baker said. “He was willing to do all kinds of things to cut down Michael Dukakis, with Roger Ailes.” He wanted his own team to win.
In Washington, James A. Baker accomplished many things: He made Reagan’s first term successful, Baker said. In 1983, Social Security was in jeopardy. “After the midterm elections, he sat down with Tip O’Neill and created a framework for it that lasted for decades, in a way we haven’t seen since,” he said.
“The Democrats as well as the Republicans do consider him the gold standard,” Glasser said. “The Reagan White House was a cesspool of intrigue, backstabbing and backbiting. At his core, he had a simple appreciation for the mechanics of government and how it actually works.”
Effectively he was something like a co-president with Reagan, Baker said. “He had Reagan focus on what’s doable.”
Alter pointed out that one of James A. Baker’s biggest accomplishments was, with President George H.W. Bush, keeping peace after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The United States did not gloat, which was very important to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
IT’S A LIVING
During the Open Book/Open Mind session, Glasser said the Montclair Public Library was important to her growing up. She told Montclair Local how as a child she took part in the Bellevue branch library’s program to keep track of how many books she read in the summer, and it was the highlight of her summer.
“I was a big reader in that pre-internet, pre-cellphone era,” she said. “You couldn’t just buy a book on a Kindle and carry it around. I didn’t have unlimited access to every great work of literature more than 100 years old, for free. My appetite for books was far beyond what my parents were willing to buy me, so it was important to have that wonderful resource.”
It was also important because she was eager to begin reading from the adult bookshelves, and the librarians helped her figure out what she could read.
“I was a big fan of historical fiction from a young age,” she said.
She worked on the newspaper at Montclair High School before she left to spend junior and senior year at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
“I remember doing a project when I was really young, interviewing the publisher and editor of The Montclair Times,” she said with a laugh.
Both of her parents worked in publishing, and founded The Legal Times newspaper, which was published out of Washington, D.C., when she was a child.
“I remember [my Dad] teaching me to read The New York Times,” she said.
“You read the front page first.
“Then the op-ed page.
“Then you read all the section fronts. He had a very specific way of doing that.”
Her father also read The Star-Ledger, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. With 24-hour news, she cannot read that way now.
When she was taken to the city, her father would point out the Times offices. “I thought the very best job in the world would be to be the book critic of The New York Times. That way you’d get paid to read books all day long,” she said.
In her journalism career she’s had many jobs: editor, reporter, columnist, foreign correspondent, magazine writer. Book reviewer?
“There’s still time for me yet,” she said. As a foreign correspondent, she had the opportunity to live and work in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, write about such things as consumer culture and interview a post-Soviet novelist.
“I get to read things and talk to smart and interesting people, understand events from the inside,” she said. “It beats working for a living.”