James Baker Forever

Genteel, old-money Houstonian. Suave citizen of the world. Above-it-all statesman. Partisan knife-fighter. Big-picture visionary. Detail-obsessed consigliere. He’s all of these things. Still.

THE CROWD DRIFTED THROUGH THE giant, aluminum-ribbed tents on a tide of liquor, rose petals, egregiously expensive perfume, and money. Many were old-line Houstonians, and they had come to attend a tenth-anniversary fundraiser for the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, a think tank housed in its own Moorish palace on the campus of Rice University. In exchange for the $3.2 million they’d dropped on the institute that night, the 750 guests got to listen to Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States, deliver a rousing, if recycled, death-to-all-terrorists speech.

The October 17 party was obviously not your ordinary rubber-chicken fundraiser. Cheney’s presence transformed it into a sort of socio-military event whose style might be called Republican Imperial. Before the guests could experience the languor of the evening, they had to pass through several acres of security fencing patrolled by armed men with no apparent sense of humor and then a battery of metal detectors. This was not pro forma. Ladies in floor-length taffeta got the full wand probe; men in black tie were patted down. At tables surmounted by huge sprays of roses and flanked by Secret Service agents, guests ate poached lobster, pumpkin bisque, quail, and tenderloin and witnessed testimonials, including a videotaped tribute from Secretary of State Colin Powell, as to the institute’s prowess in the worlds of scholarship and government policy. It was a jolly good time.

Though the vice president and his security detail were the featured guests, the real star of the night was the person for whom the institute is named—a man known to his oldest friends as Jimmy, to later friends as Jim, and to official Washington as Mr. Secretary. Cheney was there because of him; the astonishing $65 million the Baker Institute has raised in the past decade, propelling it with phenomenal speed into the upper ranks of American public-policy research, is due largely to what institute people call "the Baker magic." So too is the parade of international political celebrities that passes continually through the institute’s doors: Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela, Yasir Arafat, Helmut Kohl, and Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a few. At 73, James Baker still casts a large shadow. He is negotiating a peace accord in the Western Sahara and was recently a special presidential envoy to the Republic of Georgia. He is a senior partner at his family’s law firm, Baker Botts; a partner at the Carlyle Group, a controversial merchant-banking firm; and a much-sought-after speaker.

More than eleven years after leaving office as Secretary of State, Baker is fulfilling a very old and very local destiny, and the institute is its palpable expression. He is known to the world as one of the most accomplished statesmen in modern American history and one of the ablest political operators of all time. He ran five successive Republican presidential campaigns, won three, and was rewarded with the choicest jobs in politics: chief of staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan; Secretary of State and chief of staff under George H. W. Bush. But to Houstonians he is known, as he has always been known, simply as a Baker. For the scion of one of the most prominent families in Texas history, that is quite enough. His great-grandfather James Addison Baker co-founded Baker Botts in 1872; his grandfather "Captain" James Addison Baker brought it to national prominence, founded the precursor to Texas Commerce Bank, was the leading Houston businessman of his era, and proved in court that murdered millionaire cotton baron William Marsh Rice’s will was forged, thereby saving his bequest—and the eventual Rice University (Captain Baker was the chairman of Rice’s board of trustees for fifty years). His father, James Addison Baker Jr., was a leading lawyer and banker in Houston. James III (really the fourth) was raised to be a lawyer and to shun politics. Until he was forty, he stayed in Houston and did what was expected of him. Then he did something that would have horrified the James Addison Bakers who came before him. He went to Washington. And after a long and bewilderingly successful stint there, he finally returned home, to the neighborhood where he grew up and his friends and Baker Botts and Rice—to a comfortable life that looks much like the one that his family had intended for him.

To Houstonians, the meaning of Baker’s Odyssean return is clear enough. He is everything that the old, raw-knuckled, oil-and-real-estate boomtown has always wanted to be: smart, sophisticated, urbane, and still able to flat outdo and outhustle the pointy-headed swells from the Northeast. He is, of course, not the only example of this. Houston lawyers like Joe Jamail have been running circles around the Harvard boys for years, and Houston’s energy companies rule the world. What makes Baker different is how public his achievement has been; the Houston boy who was nothing at all like the loudmouthed, backslapping Texas pols of Eastern stereotype became a dominant force in American politics. The meaning of his rich, precocious little institute at Rice is that Baker is taking a long ride into the sunset, and Houston is taking it with him.

But if the institute is a measure of the love that exists between Houston and Baker, it is also emblematic of the very schisms within him that caused him to leave in the first place. He is a man deeply, though not unhappily, divided. The genteel, Princeton-educated, upper-class Houstonian who values duty and honor and his family’s name is also the preeminent political knife-fighter of his era; the august big-picture-oriented diplomat who helped negotiate the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany is also detail-obsessed and hypercompetitive (a friend once described him as being "tough as a two-dollar steak"); the elder statesman who presides over the calculatedly nonpartisan work of the Baker Institute is also the person who led the Republican troops during the bitterly partisan Florida recount following the 2000 election. These contradictions don’t usually bother him,

Tags: POLITICS

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