Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein, Simon & Schuster, 1,107 pp, $40, ISBN 978-1476793054
It Was All A Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, by Stuart Stevens, Knopf, 237 pp, $26.95, ISBN 978-0525658450
The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Doubleday, 694 pp, $35, ISBN 978-0385540551
Since Donald Trump’s eruption onto the political scene in 2015 there has been much lamentation about his destructive departure from core Republican values. Republican Never-Trumpers, including members of the Lincoln Project, such as Stuart Stevens, a political consultant and campaign manager for forty years, including for Mitt Romney in 2012, campaigned against him. The two President Bushes, and several other leading figures in previous administrations, did not vote for him. But in 2016 Trump nevertheless won the Republican nomination and the presidency, and had it not been for the Covid pandemic would very probably have been re-elected in 2020. His domination of the party, based on the unswerving loyalty of most Republican voters, seems to have remained complete. That the 2020 election was stolen from him remains an article of faith for many supporters, and is not a proposition Republican politicians can afford to challenge. The “civil war” and the “battle for the soul of the Republican Party” are more or less over, it would appear, despite some pockets of resistance in Congress and in statehouses. And the rather improbable good guys in this story, most notably former House Republican whip Liz Cheney – the very conservative daughter of a famously conservative father – have lost.
Stevens does not agree that Trump hijacked and corrupted the Republican Party. He states his thesis early on, and repeats it throughout his slim book: “[Trump] is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty years or so, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party. Trump isn’t an aberration of the Republican Party: he is the Republican Party in purified form.” “It was all a lie”: such is the unhappy conclusion of Stevens about the cause he served for decades.
The book, published in the heat of last year’s election campaign, is a polemic. It makes its case cogently, however. Stevens argues that Trump’s use of race, while particularly egregious, traces its roots to the Southern strategy adopted by Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968 after Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act ensured that the Democrats would enjoy the overwhelming support of black voters (of whom Nixon, representing the party of Lincoln after all, had won 32 per cent in 1960) while losing most white Southerners. Even before the Southern strategy was so named, Barry Goldwater won only 7 per cent of the black vote in 1964. Stevens points out that William F Buckley, the founder of the National Review and the beau idéal of the cultured, intellectual conservative, wrote in 1957 that segregation was justified by the “cultural superiority of the White over the Negro”.
The continuing exploitation of the race issue, if more subtle (before Trump) than in the 1960s, is at the core of Stevens’s argument. Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush both employed racist stereotypes in their campaigns, for example. Stevens goes on to skewer what he depicts as chronic, indeed systemic, Republican hypocrisy and lies on many other themes: the importance of “character” and “family values” (trumpeted when impeaching Bill Clinton, but brushed aside in the cases of Trump and Newt Gingrich); the role of religion in the public sphere, but religion obsessively focused on the single issue of abortion and notwithstanding the disgrace of a string of leading pastors over sex or corruption; discipline in maintaining public finances, except when a Republican president was in power; mockery of intellectual and educational “elitism” ‑ sneered at by figures such as Josh Hawley (Stanford and Yale) and Ted Cruz (Princeton and Harvard). He highlights the appeal of conspiracy theories, going back to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, then maintained by the John Birch Society, a seedbed for later right-wing activists, right up to QAnon’s tales of a baby-killing Satanic cabal. He argues that the shameless distortion of facts, and indeed the invention of useful simulacra of facts, have a long history. Appealing to the emotions, fears and prejudices of working and lower middle class white voters while at the same facilitating the further enrichment of the wealthy in the name of rewarding enterprise has long been a productive strategy. Stevens admits that the rewards and satisfactions of his career, financially and emotionally, were great. He also says that for a long time he believed that Republican ends – tax cuts, a more conservative judiciary, strong national defence – justified the sometimes distasteful means.
The sweeping denunciation of his party to me seems rather pat, however. If indeed the Republicans had over decades already been rotten to the core in the way Stevens suggests, it is hard to believe that an astute operator would not have realised this earlier. One is meant to believe that it took him the best part of forty years, during which he enjoyed a highly successful career in the service of Republican politicians, to come to his recent epiphany: once he was blind, but now can see. A cynic might also observe that he, as part of the old establishment, no longer had a leading role to play, and so, at the age of sixty-five, was free to burn his boats. A dramatic exit and comprehensive repudiation of the party would make more of a media impact and allow him to occupy the moral high ground.
It may well be that all of the trends Trump intensified can be traced back over decades. Moreover, they had been gaining momentum for years. But there were other, quite different, Republican leaders – such as John McCain, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ‑ who acted more or less honourably in seeking to achieve traditional conservative goals, such as strong international alliances and free trade. The real tensions within the party were not resolved. But Trump’s victory marked a decisive shift. More precisely, continuing Republican acquiescence in his leadership, despite his flagrant abandonment of many of the party’s supposed principles, his systematic dishonesty and the vulgarity and violence of his rhetoric, finally upset the end/means balance that Stevens had maintained in his own mind.
Many of the ideas and instincts that shaped Trump’s campaigns and his presidency, and continue to reign in the Republican Party, can be traced back a long way. Extreme anti-communism (not confined to Republicans, it must be said: the young Robert F Kennedy worked for the House Un-American Activities Committee) was nourished by allegations of conspiracy, betrayal and plots within institutions (the State Department, the army) which might be seen as pillars of a deep state. Key stages in the development of the modern Republican style also occurred during the Clinton presidency, in particular the no-holds-barred assault on the Clintons’ character, the insistence that Vince Foster was murdered, and, critically, the election of a Republican majority to Congress in 1994 headed by an aggressively scorched-earth campaigner, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich overreached with the failure of the first government shutdown and Clinton bounced back from his impeachment, but the playbook had been written. It was added to after the Tea Party revolt of 2010, which pushed the party further to the right and encouraged ever-greater combativeness. The unhappy Speaker, John Boehner, an old-style golfing, drinking, deal-making schmoozer, who was eventually forced out of office by his right wing, recently observed that many of those elected in 2010 gave priority to “how to fundraise off of outrage or how they could get on Hannity that night” and were fixated on “conspiracies and crusades”. And the nomination of Sarah Palin for vice-president in 2008 had already shown that ill-informed populism could be a potent, if not quite winning, formula.
In Reaganland, however, Rick Perlstein argues that the decisive years in the formation of the American right as we have known it for the last four decades were those from 1976 to 1980. Reaganland is the last in a series of four books covering the phenomenon from the early 1960s to 1980. Of course Ronald Reagan was not president in the late 1970s: Jimmy Carter was. Much of the book is a detailed but absorbing and often highly entertaining account of the Carter presidency, written in an energetic style one critic has described as “hyper-caffeinated”. For what I imagine is a small band of ageing political nostalgists (if you remember the 1970s, you were certainly there) there are the pleasures of encountering once familiar figures such as the president’s embarrassing brother Billy and moralising daughter Amy, the ethically challenged head of the Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance, flinty national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (whose TV presenter daughter was the object of one of Trump’s misogynist rants) and many others, including the young Roger Stone and Paul Manafort on the other side. We learn that Arthur Laffer’s eponymous curve, demonstrating how tax cuts would lead to increased revenues, was sketched on a napkin taken from the bar at a lunch with Dick Cheney. The New York Times celebrated a young property developer whose daring investments might help save the failing city: he was “tall, lean, and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford. He rides around town in a chauffeured silver Cadillac with his initials, DJT, on the plates. He dates slinky fashion models, belongs to the most elegant clubs, and at only thirty years of age, estimates that he is worth more than $200 million.”
Perlstein chronicles how Carter gradually squandered the great public goodwill with which he started his term in office, as a Washington outsider who would practise a better kind of politics. It was a dreadful time economically (when Reagan asked in 1980, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” the answer was a loud “No”). The second oil shock, with queues at the gas pumps; rising crime rates; and, of course, the Iran hostage crisis helped set the tone (though Perlstein points out that Carter’s lowest approval ratings actually occurred before the hostages were seized). In the background, the long-term stagnation of real American wages had begun, accompanied by the start of large-scale closures in steel and other traditional industries. Budget cuts were severe, and alienated liberals without convincing conservatives. Carter was highly intelligent, principled and hard-working. He had some major achievements, notably the Camp David accords between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. But he was simply not a very good politician: he lacked the guile and charm of the next obscure Southern governor to reach the White House, Bill Clinton. His speeches were often stuffed with detail, and, notoriously, somewhat gloomy and moralistic (as when, dressed in a cardigan, he urged the American public to turn down their thermostats and drive smaller cars). He was also unlucky: he was filmed collapsing during a ten-mile road race on a very hot and humid day, and once, while fishing, was attacked by what the media described as a “killer rabbit”.
Nevertheless, until late in the 1980 campaign for the presidency he seemed still to have a decent chance of re-election. He had rallied strongly in the primaries to see off the insurgency of Ted Kennedy, whose “the dream will never die” speech at the Democratic convention nevertheless won a twenty-eight-minute ovation. Many thought he had been blessed in his opponent. At sixty-nine, Reagan seemed almost unthinkably old. He was a former film actor, at a time when a background in the world of entertainment was seen more as a disqualification than a qualification for high office. He often displayed a shaky grasp of facts, and a liking for anecdotes with at best a tenuous basis in reality.
Perlstein demonstrates, however, how often, and how unwisely, Reagan was underestimated throughout his career by Republican and Democratic opponents, and by journalists and pundits. In 1976 he had run the incumbent post-Watergate President Ford close for the nomination. He started as front-runner for 1980, but most thought he could not maintain his position through a demanding race. Much of the smart money was on “Big John” Connally, the former Democratic governor of Texas who switched parties to become Nixon’s treasury secretary, but he flamed out. Other candidates fell too. The last opponent standing was George HW Bush, who won some primaries. His staying in the race irritated Reagan, as did his criticism of Reagan’s “voodoo” economics. Perlstein vividly portrays the behind-the-scenes drama at the Republican convention. Reagan came close to picking Ford as his vice-presidential nominee, until he decided that the kind of joint authority Ford was demanding would call into question his own fitness for office. In the end, he reluctantly went for Bush.
The general election seemed balanced until late in the day. But the decisive moment came when Reagan more than held his own in the second of two presidential debates and capitalised on perceptions, expertly promoted by his team, of Carter as mean and unpleasant. Reagan’s great personal strengths were his abundant charm and unwavering optimism. Some found the former phony and the latter contrived, but he communicated brilliantly. Perlstein describes the extraordinarily precise choreography of his photo-ops, speeches and TV appearances. He also cites a number of cases where Reagan greatly improved the scripts offered to him by his staff, by inserting jokes and stories and by making the language simpler and more direct. He also had a set of simple but strongly held and clearly presented beliefs: in smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise, personal responsibility, and a muscular foreign policy. His performances might have owed much to artifice, but at bottom he was authentically himself.
The content of his speeches was often tougher and more negative than his manner suggested. However, his trademark was to finish with a soaring peroration, extolling the enduring greatness of America and the boundless possibilities of the future. As Perlstein puts it: “It was the epitome of Reagan’s political gifts, that capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” In the end, Reagan won the election by ten points, carrying forty-four states.
However, alongside the narrative of events runs Perlstein’s account of deeper currents which began to reshape American politics, and which also help explain not just Reagan’s victory but how the right set the political agenda for decades.
After Ford’s defeat in 1976, many pundits asked if the Republican Party had a future. Only twelve governors were Republican; the party held only one-third of House seats. Moreover, the rise of environmentalism, consumerism and feminism had all seemingly moved the centre of political gravity. Ideological differences between Republican and Democratic lawmakers were often hard to discern, and were often as great within parties as between them. Of course, traditional loyalties had not vanished. Almost a third of voters continued to support Nixon to the end. Ford came surprisingly close to beating Carter. But it seemed to most political commentators that the only way to win was to operate from the centre and within the lines of the broad consensus which dominated Washington.
Perlstein tells the story of how that consensus was broken through the determination and creativity of a variety of polemicists, policy entrepreneurs and political organisers who had been marginal figures throughout the first part of the 1970s. They were not monolithic in their views, nor did they form part of a single movement: but the individual campaigns they created and led often appealed to many of the same people.
As described by Stuart Stevens, concerns about race remained fundamental, and were ably exploited, often through linkage to other concerns. Reagan talked about “welfare queens”, citing a black woman in Chicago with 127 social security accounts (she had four, and her ill-gotten gains amounted to $8,000). In his first election Newt Gingrich also campaigned against welfare fraud, using photographs of black people only in his publicity. Seeking to integrate public schools through busing students was strongly opposed by the white working class and by some Democratic, as well as Republican, public representatives (Perlstein observes that Joe Biden “became the senator from outside the deep South who did the most to stymie busing”). In the South, white pupils were diverted from desegregated schools to new private ones, mostly Christian. The continuing rise of violent crime in major cities, often resulting from drug-dealing and drug abuse, and disproportionately committed by blacks (also the main victims, of course) also fuelled white anxiety and support for tough policies on crime. Far from trying to widen their appeal to black voters, most Republicans “went hunting where the ducks are”, in Goldwater’s phrase, and focused their attention on whites. Indeed, some, like Paul Weyrich of the Heritage Foundation, a crucial figure in the development of the New Right, saw the merits of trying to reduce black turnout. In an observation which resonates today, he noted that “Our leverage in elections goes up as the voting population goes down.”
However, there were many other currents within the right. There was extensive pushback against gay rights, often at the municipal level, with successful campaigns against more liberal rules introduced by city authorities. The leader of the first such high profile effort, in Miami Beach, was a former beauty queen called Anita Bryant. To his credit, however, Ronald Reagan, who had known many gays in Hollywood, opposed an attempt in California to prohibit gay teachers. Opposition to abortion, and a determination to overturn Roe vs Wade, brought together many Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Anti-Catholicism had been a defining characteristic of Southern Baptist churches in particular, but evangelicals and Catholics now made common cause with each other against godlessness. Moreover, the most politically astute of the new generation of television pastors saw that links with the Republican party could be to their mutual advantage. Rev Jerry Falwell emerged as the leader of the Moral Majority movement, as Republicans increasingly made support for the pro-life campaign a basic plank of their approach. This was, electorally, devastatingly successful. In 1976 66 per cent of white fundamentalists voted for Jimmy Carter (himself a sincere and practising Baptist, who taught Sunday School). In 1980, 61 per cent went for Reagan (the first divorced man to become president).
There had been a broad cross-party consensus in favour of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, but, when ERA was just short of being approved in the two-thirds of states required to ratify it, the momentum was halted by an anti-feminist reaction among conservative women, led by the formidable Phyllis Schlafly (recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett in Mrs America.). In 1977 the National Rifle Association was taken over by a group which changed its focus from the keeping of guns for hunting to the protection of the purchase and carrying of guns in general, vigorously opposing gun control.
So the culture wars which have been such a feature of American politics, and the recruitment of working class white people to support the Republican party, really began in the late 1970s. “Reagan Democrats” became a recognised phenomenon. But other now familiar themes also emerged. In the later 1960s and early 1970s, championed by leaders like Ralph Nader, much tighter consumer protection laws began to be imposed, with broad political support. At the same time, environmental regulation, also mainly consensual, started to counteract the most visible effects of air and water pollution. But in the later 1970s regulation started to be portrayed, with increasing success, as a block on enterprise, investment, prosperity and employment. The same was true of increases in corporation tax, which had been politically impossible to repel in the previous decade. At the personal level, in California the celebrated Proposition 13 referendum froze property taxes and came to be a symbol of pressure for a lower tax burden on individuals.
The economic crisis, notably stagflation (the persistence of inflation even without growth) had instigated an intellectual revolution in the economics profession, with the re-emergence of monetarist theory, articulated most ably by the brilliant Milton Friedman, and the development of other ideas, such as that of rational expectations, which helped to subvert what an economics professor of mine used to call “neanderthal Keynesianism”. Reductions in public spending, if required to help keep the money supply under control, were part of the monetarist formula. Some questioned the viability of Social Security and Medicare. But others of less academic eminence popularised the seductive idea that difficult choices on spending could be avoided, or at least minimised, by lowering income taxes, which by liberating the animal spirits of the market would increase activity and hence raise tax revenues. This idea was associated with the aforementioned Laffer of the curve, and popularised by economics writer Jude Wanniski and by Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal. It was rapidly adopted by many other commentators and Republican activists, and then by the Reagan campaign. No matter that the economic and political mainstreams were deeply sceptical (this was what Bush meant by “voodoo economics”): by promising tax cuts for all and the reduction of regulation it would be possible to transform the Republicans from the party of Scrooge into that of Santa Claus, and, as Wanniski put it, “nobody shoots Santa Claus”.
Each of these elements – playing the race card, encouraging culture wars, reducing regulation, cutting taxes – has been an important part of the Republican formula ever since, and Trump has shown a particular genius in exploiting them. There are differences, of course: neither immigration nor trade was a source of concern in that period, and the interests of business continued to shape policy. Another major difference between the late 1970s and the late 2010s was policy on security and defence. A theme of the New Right was the need for the United States to move on from self-flagellation over Vietnam (a war some still contended could have been won) and to depart from the appeasement of the era of détente associated with Henry Kissinger, a hate figure. It was necessary to combat communist assertiveness internationally and to counter the growing threat of perceived Soviet missile superiority. Among the leading figures making the case for a more confrontational approach, including on arms control, were policy intellectuals such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Paul Nitze, and, at the political level, Dick Cheney. In many cases they personally were influential in subsequent Republican administrations, culminating of course in the Iraq war under the second President Bush.
Irrespective of the particular cause, the methods pioneered by activists and organisers were highly effective, and novel in their application within the mainstream Republican party. Some figures such as Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich had started on the anti-communist fringes, but they acquired a wider influence. They established partisan think-tanks (notably the Heritage Foundation), which published polemics often based on selective and thin research. Mailing lists were systematically assembled, expanded and used to build a passionate, active base of support (the monthly anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly Report was an early example). Newly formed lobbying groups were given neutral names: the mission of the American Council for Capital Formation was to seek cuts in capital gains tax. Business support for new policies on tax and deregulation was energised. Campaign donations had been roughly divided between the two parties: starting in the later 1970s, it started to skew towards the Republicans. Organisers found that small businesses could be led to engage on a large scale in active and targeted lobbying of their public representatives: it was this above all which halted the further development of consumer protection regulation.
Election campaigns, at local, state and federal levels, took on some of the characteristics of today’s politics. In some primaries, more conservative, often little-known, candidates were propelled to victory over incumbents and establishment favourites through the aggressive use of negative advertising and a full-on ground game, often using smears and scare tactics. Changes in campaign finance rules, intended to limit candidate expenditure, led to the growth of PACs (Political Action Committees) which could spend more freely if notionally independent from campaigns. As one pioneer of PACs, Terry Dolan, said: “A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps would stay clean.” The application of similar tactics led to the surprise defeat of some prominent liberal Democrats, such as Birch Bayh in Indiana by the thirty-three-year-old Dan Quayle in 1980.
This is not to say that such stratagems always worked, that all Republicans adopted them or that Democrats were snow white. Likewise, many Republicans rejected some or all of the radical new policy prescriptions being promoted. However, Perlstein largely succeeds in making the case for the late 1970s as the seedbed of a revitalised, more radical Republican politics, a politics which was able to challenge many established assumptions, change the terms of debate, move the centre of gravity back to the right, and, of course, start to win more elections than it lost –beginning with Reagan’s in 1980. And, while the origins of Trumpism are varied, he drew, albeit in an extreme way, on many of the themes which gained prominence in the 1970s.
There is no more perfect example of the kind of Republican supplanted by Trump and his ilk than James A Baker III, once “the man who ran Washington”, in the words of his biographers Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser. Baker was successively chief of staff (1981-’85) and then treasury secretary (1985-’89) for Ronald Reagan, and under George HW Bush was secretary of state (1989-’92, before a brief reversion to chief of staff during Bush’s failing campaign for re-election. The biography tells the story of this remarkable career in a clear, well-sourced and at times gripping way.
Baker was anything but an ideologue. In fact, for almost the first forty years of his life (he was born in 1930) he was a nominal Democrat, like most Texans, and took little interest in politics. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Texas lawyers and judges, right back to the days of Sam Houston. He followed the family tradition, as his father insisted that he do, by studying law at the University of Texas and then entering legal practice in Houston. He had gone to a private boarding school near Philadelphia, and then to Princeton, where he didn’t devote excessive energy to his studies but had a very sociable time.
Two things changed him. First, through a shared enthusiasm for tennis he became a friend of George Bush, a Yankee incomer to Texas six years his senior: they became doubles champions at the Houston Country Club. The second thing was the death from cancer, aged thirty-eight, of his first wife, Mary. Left with three sons, three years later he married a divorcée from his own circle, Susan Garrett Winston, who had four children. They then had a child of their own. Mary’s death left him dissatisfied with the life he was leading, comfortable and respected though he was. So he was open to Bush’s urgings to get involved in politics – first, in Bush’s unsuccessful run for the US Senate in 1970. In 1978 he attempted unsuccessfully to become attorney general of Texas. He was not a great candidate, being neither a compelling speaker nor a gladhander. But he discovered an enormous talent for organisation. On Bush’s recommendation, he was appointed assistant secretary of commerce in the Ford administration. His efficiency and focus led to his selection as manager of Ford’s re-election campaign in 1976. He then ran Bush’s campaign against Reagan in 1980. Despite being suspected by many in Reagan’s inner circle of not being a true believer, his talents were judged to be well-suited to the role of chief of staff.
Baker was brilliantly successful in all three of his major posts. As chief of staff, he imposed order and discipline in the White House and developed relationships across the party and in Congress. As Treasury Secretary, he negotiated Reagan’s sweeping tax reform bill of 1986 with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker. In 1985 he secretly arranged and led the meeting of finance ministers from the world’s six leading economies in the Plaza Hotel, New York, which reached the first agreement on managing currency exchange rates.
As secretary of state, Baker was centrally involved in managing the end of communism in eastern Europe, including the reunification of Germany and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. He also played the leading role in assembling the thirty-five-state coalition against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait (persuading Israel not to jeopardise Arab support by retaliating against Saddam’s launch of Scud missiles) and convening the first-ever general Middle East peace conference, in Madrid. These were extraordinary times in the history of international relations – and the book does very well in succinctly describing them, while maintaining the focus on Baker’s personal role.
As if this were not enough, Baker was the overall manager of Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, and of Bush’s election campaign in 1988.
Baker’s many strengths were on display throughout his career at the top of the administration. He was ferociously dedicated and hard-working: clearly, as the authors indicate, at the expense of his family. His children had many issues with drugs and alcohol, though he was also loving and supportive at times of crisis. He won the near-absolute confidence of his bosses (and their wives, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush). The psychology of his relationship with Bush was a little complex: they were as close as brothers, but with an element of sibling rivalry. Baker knew that in some ways he was abler than Bush, while Bush may have resented Baker’s consistently glowing press (he used to joke “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not President?”). It was sometimes suggested that Baker’s top priority was himself. Bush’s family, including Barbara and his son George W, felt later that he had not been as committed as he should have been to the 1992 campaign. But Bush and Baker remained close friends right to the end. Baker sat at his friend’s deathbed, rubbing his feet.
Baker demanded the best from those around him, and assembled a small team of very able, completely loyal officials who went with him from post to post, even though he was personally distant. He developed strong relationships with his counterparts in the administration (including Dick Cheney, back in office as secretary of defence under Bush) with foreign colleagues, above all Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and with leaders in Congress. He commanded the full register of modes, from suave and dignified to the hunter and fisherman who told dubious jokes over a beer or a glass of bourbon. He was able to outmanoeuvre rivals such as, in the Reagan years, Ed Meese and Alexander Haig. He also recognised the importance, both for the administration and for his own reputation, of cultivating the press: he was known to be a systematic leaker, but always for a purpose. He was proud of his reputation for probity, and, while not necessarily always telling the whole truth, did not engage in outright lies. His instinct for danger ensured that he stayed well clear of the Iran-Contra affair.
Baker was neither an economist (he failed an economics exam at Princeton) nor a foreign policy expert. But this did not impede him. At the highest levels, temperament, instinct and general intelligence rank above expertise. He drew on the deep knowledge of his officials and advisers. He himself was above all a dealmaker, working out what he could give up, what his interlocutor needed to get up from the table, knowing when to charm, when to cajole, when, tactically, to lose his temper. The biography describes in detail several of these tours-de-force, in particular as secretary of state, but in other jobs too. He was of course fortunate to be in office at the apogee of US power and prestige, and at a time of dramatic and radical change which gave him challenges worthy of his mettle.
Bush and Baker were not immune from criticism from various quarters. Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to German unification led her to distrust Baker, whom she saw as too willing an enabler of it. Arguably the close partnership with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze prevented Bush and Baker from seeing as soon as they might have that the Soviet Union was disintegrating. In the relationship with China, human rights were relegated to a secondary position even after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Baker strongly opposed US intervention in the Balkans, saying that “We’ve got no dog in the fight.” Rightly or wrongly, he felt that US policy had to be focused on what he saw as realistic priorities. In domestic politics, he was no kind of saint and did what it took to win. In 1988 he unleashed the ruthlessly aggressive and negative Lee Atwater. Atwater famously released the TV ads attacking Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime which made the face of Willie Horton, a black criminal who had committed murder while on furlough from prison, emblematic of his campaign.
On leaving the White House in 1993, he made money as a lawyer and adviser to major companies, including the growing Carlyle Group, and developing the Baker Institute for Foreign Policy at Rice University in Houston. He gave some thought to a presidential bid in 1996 but did not run. George W Bush did not enlist him as an adviser in his 2000 campaign for the presidency: partly because he continued to think that Baker could have done more for his father in 1992, but mostly because he was determined to show that he was his own man, not dependent on his father or his circle (Dick Cheney had been a member of Bush senior’s cabinet but was nowhere near as personally close to him as Baker).
However, immediately after the election there was a dramatic coda to Baker’s career in politics and government. Memorably, as the votes were counted, Florida was first called for Gore; then for Bush; Gore then conceded, only to withdraw his concession as the margin narrowed to a razor-thin lead of 1,784 votes out of nearly six million cast. The Democrats insisted on recounts in some counties. The Gore campaign dispatched Warren Christopher, a rather formal and stolid lawyer who had been Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, to lead the effort. Immediately the Bush team turned to Baker.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser describe the extraordinary twists and turns of the next thirty-seven days, when Gore finally conceded after the Supreme Court halted the counting of votes. They consider that Baker totally outplayed Christopher right from the start, when they met: Christopher wanted to agree on a procedure to resolve matters fairly, but Baker flatly refused to concede that there was any doubt about Bush’s victory. He recruited and organised large teams of lawyers, political operatives and spokespeople to fight on all fronts. So did Christopher, but the Democratic operation was nowhere near as smoothly and ruthlessly run. In the end, Bush’s margin of victory was 537. The authors conclude that it was quite likely that more Floridians turned up to the polls intending to vote for Gore, but multiple practical problems, including with the famous butterfly ballots and hanging chads, led to thousands of ballot papers being thrown out, which ended up favouring the Republicans. Later independent recounts by news organisations left Bush winning more valid votes. The Bush camp, including Cheney, agreed that without Baker they might well have been defeated. “Even in the twilight of his career, [Baker] demonstrated his mastery of politics and flexible philosophical moorings … he had proved yet again that there was no better fixer in American politics.” And any rift between him and the Bushes which had developed after 1992 was closed.
Baker’s “philosophical moorings” were indeed flexible. He was not defined by any particular political philosophy, or strongly-held convictions. He was no right-wing radical, but a conservative, who was generally pro-business and in favour of fiscal discipline and of American leadership in the world. He was a sort of Texas Tory, from a class born to rule and with a duty to do so. What he cared about was getting things done, and he would do whatever was necessary to achieve that. He was a superb dealmaker, a master both of strategy and tactics, always recognising the need for the other side to get up from the table with a sense that it had obtained something, and knowing that outright trickery or deceit, while they might work in the short term, would destroy his credibility.
In other words, Baker belonged to a Republican élite which has now largely disappeared from the party, or been driven out of it. However, his will to win, his support for his team, his wish to work from inside the tent, remained paramount. So it was that, unlike the Bushes and others like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, he voted for Trump in 2016, on the basis that it would mean lower taxes and more conservative judges. He was appalled by Trump in office: by his sheer incompetence as much as by his attacks on NATO and on trade, and by the vulgarity, corruption and hysterical rhetoric which defined the administration. In private he called him “crazy” and “nuts”. At one point he told the authors he might vote for Joe Biden in 2020: but in the end it seems likely that he stuck with Trump, repelled by the president though he was. He was not to know how far Trump would push his revolt against the result. Trump and Giuliani, unlike Bush and Baker in 2000, lied and threatened: Baker’s victory in Florida was achieved through the expert handling of the judicial process. His decision to support Trump must be seen as a rare misjudgement.
So Baker might seem to personify one kind of Republican Party, very different from the current version. In running the campaigns of Gerald Ford and George HW Bush, and in office, he resisted many of the trends described by Perlstein which were becoming potent within the party in the 1970s and have since come to define it. Though ruthlessly determined and partisan, he was pragmatic, realistic, responsible and capable of compromise. To that extent, Stevens is wrong if he believes that the Republican Party’s present state is the inevitable consequence of the sins of half a century. But if not inevitable, it is certainly a consequence. Were he younger, where would Baker fit in? Maybe he would have ended up not unlike Mitch McConnell, appalled, but realising that the only way to retain his own power and achieve his ends was to accommodate himself to the reality of Trump for as long as the party remained in thrall to him.
Rory Montgomery was an Irish diplomat from 1983 to 2019. He is an honorary professor at the Mitchell Institute, Queen’s University Belfast and has recently been elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy.