The man who ran Washington: James Baker

June 29, 2020

James Baker worked on five transitions and served in four presidential administrations, including as White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan, and as secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush. Baker joined host David Marchick on Transition Lab to discuss his long and distinguished career on the national stage. 

Read the highlights:

Marchick: You spent basically five years trying to keep Ronald Reagan out of office, first when you were running Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign (in 1976) and then later running George H.W. Bush’s efforts (during the 1980 Republican primaries)Why would he ask you to be his chief of staff after you tried to defeat him twice? 

Baker: “I don’t think it will ever happen again in American politics…I think it’s something about the broad-gauge nature of the Gipper. He was looking for someone who knew and understood how Washington works. You remember he was coming in right after Jimmy Carter, who was an extraordinarily bright person, but didn’t think he needed anybody in the District of Columbia to tell him how to do things.” 


MarchickYou basically set the gold standard for being chief of staff. And now, because of your work, it is best practice for the chief of staff to have the authority to pick the (White House) staff and for the transition team to focus on the agencies. 

“I ran the transition in the White House. And President Reagan gave me a carte blanche to hire the White House staff…He said, ‘I want you to get the best people you can get.’ I didn’t have to go through those central personnel.” 


Marchick asked about the difficult 1988-89 transition from Reagan to Bush, noting that Baker  described it as a “hostile takeover” because of the turnover in key personnel even though the transfer of power was from one Republican to another. 

Baker: “It’s hard because you’ve got all these people you’ve been serving with. They’re all good Republicans and they expect to serve in another Republican administration, but you have a new president who needs to put his imprimatur on the government, which means you need new people because people are policy, and people have a tendency to get stuck in positions they have long advocated…It’s a little difficult because you have to go through and say, ‘Alright, we’re going to change you out.’” 


Marchick asked Baker about his role as legal adviser for George W. Bush overseeing the recount of votes in Florida during the hotly contested 2000 presidential election against then Vice President Al Gore. 

Baker: “We didn’t go down to Florida to win the election, we went down there to preserve the election. I think the Democrats made a couple of big mistakes. They didn’t realize that it was not just a legal contest, but a political contest and it needed to be treated that way. The other mistake they made was to insist upon recounts in only four Florida counties that were big Democratic counties. That gave us the moral high ground. Those were fundamental mistakes.” 


Marchick asked Baker about his intense January 1991 meeting in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in the months following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and whether that meeting was the most pressure filled moment in his government life. 

Baker: “’I am not sure that it was the most pressure filled moment, but it was pressure filled. I began that press conference by saying ‘regrettably.’ And the minute I said, `regrettably’… and before I actually said another word, all of the wire service reporters jumped up and ran out of the room to file their stories because they figured that war is coming. It was a seven-hour meeting and I made it quite apparent that we were not there to negotiate down from a U.N. resolution: Get out or we throw you out. I wasn’t there and negotiate. I was there to implement. Of course, they wanted to negotiate it and we went back and forth…I was under no illusions that they were going to just pick up and leave.” 


Marchick: One of the things you’re famous for is preparation, focus and never being at a loss for wordsWhere does that come from?” 

Baker: “My dad used to have a mantra of the five P’s: prior preparation prevents poor performance. He drilled that into me from the time I was a young man and it’s really stood me in very, very good stead throughout all the politics and public service. It also stuck with me in the United States Marine Corps, in the law school and in the practice of law because I was never one to try to wing it.”