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Franchise Player

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Yes, he's back! Tough and crafty as ever, he keeps the Bush team focused

As working holidays go, Thanksgiving 2000 was not the worst that James Baker has spent on assignment for someone named Bush. That distinction belongs to Thanksgiving 1990, when George W.'s father dispatched his Secretary of State to Sanaa, the charmless capital city of Yemen, to ensure Yemeni acquiescence in the military action being planned against Iraq. For hours, Baker had to sit across from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was then despised by most of America's Middle East allies, watch him eat a messy local delicacy with his hands, and try to keep his own meal down while the sheik repeatedly spat into a large bowl between bites.

Compared with that, last Thursday was a walk in the park--literally. Baker went duck hunting at his wife's family's ranch in Danbury, Texas. For the first time in 16 days, Baker did not telephone Governor Bush. Nor did he hear from his old friend former President Bush, who has been calling in daily for updates. Baker just wanted to get away from The Mess, and felt confident enough that he could take the day off. And so, with his son John, he went out and bagged five ducks.

At 70, James Addison Baker is still the Franchise Player, the man around whom every Republican President has built his team since 1975. He has been Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, White House chief of staff and, for a brief stretch under Gerald Ford, acting Secretary of Commerce (edging out George Shultz for the modern record for most top jobs). Along the way, Baker has run or overseen six campaigns for President: one for Ford, two for Ronald Reagan and three for the elder George Bush. It's a resume no one else in either party can match.

And it helps explain why Baker was the obvious choice on the morning of Nov. 8, when George W. woke up and realized that all those top-secret three-ring binders marked TRANSITION--WEEK ONE were going to be useless for a while. It was Dick Cheney who came up with the idea of calling Baker out of retirement. He has known Baker since the Ford Administration (when Cheney was White House chief of staff), and Baker spent election night in Cheney's Austin, Texas, hotel suite. It has not been lost on Bush loyalists, attuned to signs of who's really in charge, that Cheney decided who was going to Tallahassee, Fla., in the critical first few hours of Nov. 8. "At first it was going to be Karl Rove with some lawyers," said a Bush hand. "But that idea got killed."

The 911 call from Austin had to be especially sweet for Baker, whose relations with the Bush family have been correct but cool ever since Bush senior lost his reelection bid in 1992, a campaign Baker commanded for only the final three months. Baker's extraordinarily close friendship with the former President did not suffer after the 1992 defeat. But Barbara Bush never quite got over it, and some of her frostiness was inherited by the one Bush son whose instincts most resemble his redoubtable mom's: George W. The Governor and Rove publicly purged nearly all the old Bush and Baker hands from the Governor's campaign team. By 1998, being a "former Baker aide" was worse than being a liberal, and many who had once toiled for Baker had to work under deep cover. Baker kept his distance from Austin; he didn't need or want any part of it anyway. Relations are better now, but not yet back to normal. Baker and the former President had a quiet dinner two Sundays ago in Houston--without their wives, a sign that the grudge between Baker and Barbara may not be patched up, in the view of some old Bush hands.

Baker has faced far tougher moments in his career--thousands of lives were riding on his 11th-hour war-or-peace meeting in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in January 1991, for example--but few have been as tailor-made for Baker, whose unique skill is the ability to integrate policy and politics in one brain and make a lot of things happen quickly. Baker arrived in Tallahassee the morning after the election and was joined by two longtime aides, Margaret Tutwiler and Robert Zoellick, a plug-in rescue squad that had seen action in such events as the 1987 stock-market crash, the fall of the Soviet bloc and the Gulf War. Within 48 hours of the election, aides told TIME, Baker instructed his team to be ready to take the recount issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He asked Zoellick to find out what the state legislature could do if the hand recount went Gore's way and Bush needed to take the fight to the House of Representatives. Then Baker did something else. He told Bush and Cheney to settle in for a long siege. "It's going to be a very, very bumpy road, and you are just going to have to stay the course," was how two officials recalled the conversation.

By then, Baker had set up shop in a cramped corner office in the Florida Republican Party's headquarters and put Zoellick and Tutwiler within shouting range. Baker brought in an army of election lawyers from Washington, who went to work in a large conference room nearby, sharing a giant table as a desk and sitting on folding chairs. For a while, legal counsel Ted Olson just sat on the floor. From Austin, Baker brought in logistical expert Joe Allbaugh, who ordered catered meals three times a day, arranged for local Republicans to fluff and fold everyone's laundry and scrounged corporate jets to fly the principals home on Thanksgiving.

A practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, Baker read the 42-page decision by the Florida Supreme Court after 11 on Tuesday night, personally checked the case cited by David Boies as authority for counting dimpled chads and called a press conference to claim that Boies and the court had misread the case. Baker then threw another grenade into the Gore camp: "I would not be surprised to see the legislature perhaps take some action to get back to the original statutory provisions."

Longtime Baker watchers have not been surprised at how quickly the former Marine put together Bush's Florida operation. But some have found his public statements unexpectedly shrill and partisan. "He needs to consider how the country perceives the process and the winner," says an old friend. "That does not come naturally to Baker." Another former aide was more outspoken. "He got a little too hot." A master inside operator, Baker has always been a bit weaker at the public side of politics. He made a lot of people wince in 1990 when he said the Gulf War was about "jobs." This shortcoming is probably one reason Baker has never been elected to public office.

But there are few criticisms of Baker in Austin, where passions run, if anything, four or five times as high as in Tallahassee, and most of the folks want him to turn the volume up, not down. Besides, say his allies, it's a little ironic that Baker, a man derided by his critics for being the ultimate pragmatist, is now being tagged for showing too much passion. "The normal rap on Baker is that he watches out for himself," says a supporter. "I don't see that here."


Cover Date: December 4, 2000



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