White House Mayday
James Baker Returns
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, April 24, 2006
If Billy Graham could dry up George Bush, maybe James Baker can cool him down. Baker is back. Our 33 percent president sought him out, Acheson-style, to manage his zero percent Iraq policy—a telling choice: under the first Bush, Baker was initially among those advocating against attacking Saddam, even to “liberate” Kuwait . But when he lost that fight, Baker put together the 34-nation coalition that gave Colin Powell a chance to look heroic and Kuwait's playboy caliphate a guaranteed return from its brief exile in Cairo's higher-end Lebanese whorehouses. Baker’s pragmatism is his only absolute (he was once a Democrat). As chief of staff during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Baker pretty much ran domestic policy, the way he ran foreign policy as secretary of state under the first Bush, the way he ensured Gore's defeat at the Supreme Court's hand for the second Bush. Baker is the consummate diplomat, making him somewhat of an ill fit for any sort of relationship with the second Bush, to whom pragmatism is a French word and diplomacy a set of cheap-leather Texan boots on someone’s cojones. Time called Baker "The Velvet Hammer," back in 1989. The New York Times calls Baker’s relationship with Bush “close but complicated,” which is a nice way of saying that Baker can tell Bush to his face that he’s a fuck-up and still be needed by the little one, who wouldn’t tolerate that sort of fact-finding from anyone else. Will Baker perform miracles in Iraq ? Or rather, will Bush let him perform miracles?
Here’s a hint. Back in January Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist’s Washington bureau chief, reviewed the new Reagan biography by Richard Reeves. Here’s Woolridge's opening paragraph: “On the afternoon before the opening of the Group of 7 summit meeting in 1983, James Baker, the White House chief of staff, dropped in on Ronald Reagan to deliver a briefing book. The United States was the host of the conference, the only one held on American soil during the Reagan presidency; the administration had pre-emptively billed the meeting as a triumph; and Baker, worried about his boss’s lack of preparation and aware that ‘Reaganomics’ wasn’t universally popular, had taken a lot of trouble compiling the briefings, which were both concise and comprehensive. On returning the next morning, Baker was furious to discover that the book lay exactly where he had left it - and confronted his boss with his failure to do his prep. Reagan’s unflustered reply: ‘Well, Jim, ‘The Sound of Music’ was on last night.’”
Raise your hand if you think Baker is going to have better luck with Bush.