I first learned that James A. Baker III would likely be President Reagan’s chief of staff just prior to the 1980 election. After the election and his announcement, my friend Mike Deaver told me Jim Baker wanted to see me in the Washington D.C. Reagan Transition office.
The meeting lasted minutes, but put me on a path for which I will always be grateful.
While we had met weeks earlier, he really knew me through Mike Deaver, slated to be the deputy chief of staff. He also knew me as a Californian who had been in the Reagan world since my days at UCLA when Reagan was governor. In the rush that is a presidential transition, I offered a California/Reagan lineage that helped Jim Baker as he was building a White House staff.
The discussion was pretty straightforward. He told me he heard I’d be willing to join the White House staff. He had four different positions on the staff in mind and needed to juggle some things to figure out just which one would be the best fit.
So, he said, find a place to live in Washington, D.C.
This was late November 1980. I found a place to live, but a month later it still was not clear what position would be “best.” In December, he came to me and said the best position looked to be one reporting not to him but to Ed Meese who needed someone that could be counted on to fairly run the Office of Cabinet Affairs. He said it would be a great fit and we’d be working closely together.
Asked what I thought, as a UCLA political science graduate all of 29 years old, it sounded pretty good!
A few days later, in a meeting even more brief, Ed Meese, whom I knew well, asked if I would accept the position. I did. He got up to leave and said, let’s fly back to California in a couple days and we’ll discuss just what it means.
What it came to mean was full engagement for the next eight years in the White House, first as secretary to the cabinet and then as chief of staff to Vice President Bush.
Throughout the entire time, interaction with Jim Baker was a daily, sometimes hourly reality.
This first-hand view allows me to share that the quality of the book by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser about Jim Baker is remarkably accurate over the period of time we worked together. And, the willingness of not only Jim Baker but those who know him so well to let down the shield that often hides public figures, provides plenty of new and valuable light on the developments Jim Baker affected and the times that impacted his life.
It has been said that political power in Washington is like a bank account and you are either making deposits to build the account or taking out withdrawals to deal with challenges. There is no doubt that Jim Baker was a master at gaining power. There is no doubt that he focused on getting things done without always being burdened by philosophical debate.
What I saw, often delivered with remarkable cunning, was an individual determined to serve Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush the best way he knew how. Not even they always agreed with him. But, unlike many, he gathered strong people and cultivated a wide range of leaders not for his personal aggrandizement but to fulfill a mission.
The book just released is a remarkable and worthy study of a time and an individual that seem to have come together at a propitious moment in our nation’s history. His beginnings could not have predicted his impact in Washington. And, events could not have found a more able protagonist in the shaping of two presidencies and our nation’s role in the world.
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore.