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