Cover Biography for March 2007


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Current Biography - March 2007

James A. Baker, 3rd

Few figures in American politics have had as much influence over the events of the last quarter-century as James A. Baker 3d. Baker served most recently as the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan blue-ribbon commission charged in 2006 with making recommendations to President George W. Bush and Congress for a new direction in the Iraq War. The son of an old-money family in Houston, Texas, Baker is an unusual political figure, known for his prowess as both a Republican partisan, capable of doing whatever is needed to win elections, and a dealmaker, prepared when necessary to reach across a domestic or international divide. Baker first became well-known through his work on Gerald R. Ford’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign; his closest political association--dating back nearly four decades--has been with former president George H. W. Bush, for whom he served as campaign manager, chief of staff, and secretary of state. Frequently called the elder Bush’s consigliere—the Italian word for adviser or counselor—Baker was instrumental in getting Bush to serve as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in the 1980 presidential election and in guiding Bush's own successful campaign for the White House in 1988. Baker’s association with the Bush family remains close; he led George W. Bush’s team during the ballot recount in Florida, following the 2000 presidential election, and aided the current president on the issue of Iraqi debt in 2003.

As the face of the Republican Party during the 2000 vote recount, Baker saw the erosion of the above-the-fray image he had crafted as secretary of state from 1989 to 1992. Once known for helping to forge the deals that controlled the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile, reunified Germany in 1990, and created the international coalition that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, Baker came to be regarded by some after the 2000 election as little more than a Republican hatchetman. Since the December 2006 release of The Iraq Study Group Report, which was highly critical of the current Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, Baker has begun once more to be perceived as a pragmatic internationalist willing to achieve peace in the Middle East through negotiations with nations in the region, whether they are friendly or antagonistic toward the United States. While warning that “there is no magic formula that will solve the problems of Iraq,” as quoted by a writer for the Agence France-Presse (December 6, 2006), Baker recommended that the U.S. open talks with Iran and Syria—two nations suspected of stirring up sectarian violence in Iraq as well as supplying and arming fighters there. “You don't just talk to your friends, and it's not a sign of weakness to talk to somebody,” Baker said in an interview broadcast on MSNBC in October 2006, as quoted by the Agence France-Presse reporter. “It's not necessarily appeasement, provided you do it in the right way and you just don't roll over and give something, that you're hard-nosed and tough about it.”

James Addison Baker 3d was born in Houston on April 28, 1930, the son of a well-to-do attorney nicknamed “the Warden” by his children. A strict disciplinarian, James A. Baker Jr. was known to throw a bucketful of ice water on his children if they were not awake by seven o'clock in the morning. As the younger James Baker explained to Tony Kornheiser for the Washington Post (January 18, 1981), at an early age he was “made conscious of the fact that I sort of had a heritage to live up to.” His great-grandfather was a founder of Baker & Botts, one of Houston's first legal offices, and his grandfather, “the Captain,” built it into the largest and probably the most prestigious law firm in the city through his connections in banking, real estate, and brokerage as well as his own investments. The Bonners, Baker's mother’s family, made their fortune in the oil business. Like his father, Jim Baker, as he prefers to be known, attended the Hill School, a college prep school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, then enrolled at Princeton University. Although he was a classics major, he wrote his senior thesis on the British Labour Party from 1945 to 1952. After receiving his B.A. degree from Princeton, in 1952, he spent two years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. Having learned to shoot when he was a child, he became an expert marksman and was a member of the pistol and rifle team at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. At his father's insistence, Baker returned to his home state upon completion of his military service to study law at the University of Texas at Austin.

Prevented by a company rule against nepotism from joining the family business, Baker went to work for Andrews, Kurth, Campbell & Jones, another high-powered corporate law firm in Houston, immediately after earning his J.D. degree, in 1957. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said years later, as quoted in Newsweek (September 6, 1976). “I always would have wondered if I would have made it on my own.” He began his career in trial law, quickly growing disenchanted with the work and taking up business law instead. Within a decade he was made a partner at the firm. Baker found that he had a knack for making money in other ways, as well. In addition to making profitable investments, he succeeded as the head of a real-estate firm and the co-founder of both a brokerage house and a company that serviced oil wells; he and others sold the latter business for a substantial sum.

Although he was nominally a Democrat, Baker was by his own account “totally apolitical” during those years—in part because, as has been widely reported, his family saw politics as a corrupt profession. Meanwhile, his wife, the former Mary McHenry, was an active member of the Republican Party in Texas, who most notably contributed to the congressional campaigns of George Herbert Walker Bush. It was not until 1970, following the death of his wife that February from breast cancer, that Baker became actively involved in politics. In that year Bush, a longtime friend who had recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, asked Baker to run his Harris County, Texas, campaign. In interviews Baker has expressed his belief that Bush made the request in order to help him come to terms with his bereavement, to “give me something to do,” as he once put it. Bush lost the race to Lloyd Bentsen, but largely because of Baker's organizational ability, he easily carried Harris County, which includes Houston, taking 61 percent of the votes cast. As a result of that experience, Baker switched parties to become, in his words, “absolutely, totally, pure Republican.”

In 1972 Baker ran the campaigns in 14 Texas counties for the victorious Republican national ticket, headed by the incumbent president, Richard M. Nixon. A few months later he was named state Republican finance chairman. Reportedly on the recommendation of Bush, in 1975 he was offered a post as under secretary of commerce in Gerald R. Ford's administration. The following year, President Ford persuaded him to relinquish that position to become chief delegate hunter for the Ford campaign at the 1976 Republican National Convention, held in Kansas City, Missouri. Contrary to the predictions of many old-line political professionals, the personable and energetic Texan rounded up the final 200 or so delegate votes that pushed Ford over the top and won him his party's presidential nomination on the first ballot. Just a week after the convention, on August 25, 1976, Baker succeeded Rogers C. B. Morton as chairman of the President Ford Committee. He was the third man to head the campaign in five months. At the time of Baker's appointment, Ford was trailing Jimmy Carter, the Democratic standard-bearer, by some 30 points in most public opinion polls. Insisting that “people have been selling us and this President short for months,” Baker devised a rather unorthodox game plan. According to Kandy Stroud, a political correspondent and the author of the book How Jimmy Won (1977), an analysis of Carter's 1976 presidential campaign, Baker advised Ford to emphasize his “presidential” image by spending most of his time at the White House until the last few weeks of the campaign. For the closing days of the campaign, he recommended an all-out personal appeal by the president, accompanied by a media blitz. The unorthodox strategy worked so well that Ford made up almost the entire 30-point deficit, but it was not quite enough. The incumbent president lost the national election on November 2, 1976 to Carter by just over 1 percent of the total vote. Despite his candidate's loss Baker earned a reputation as a campaign tactician of uncommon ability. As Stroud wrote, “Not until the bitter end, when James Baker took over, was there the slightest semblance of order or direction in the Ford campaign.”

After the election Baker returned to his law practice in Texas, but, as he told Tony Kornheiser, “it didn't hold the same fascination for me anymore.” In 1978 he announced his candidacy for the office of state attorney general. Despite the help of such high-powered Republicans as George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Jack Kemp, John B. Connally Jr., and Ronald Reagan, who stumped the state in his behalf, and a campaign chest of over $1.5 million, he was beaten in that contest, his one and only bid for elective office to date, by a conservative Democrat. Nevertheless, he managed to garner about 46 percent of the vote, the highest total ever for a Republican running below the first line on a statewide ticket in what was then an overwhelmingly Democratic Texas.

The following year Baker agreed to manage George H. W. Bush's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. To the astonishment of most veteran campaign watchers, Baker guided Bush, who was generally considered to be the underdog in the crowded Republican field, to a stunning political upset in the Iowa caucuses. Because they were the first political event of the year, the caucuses attracted heavy press coverage. Bush's victory, and the accompanying media splash, made him the front-runner going into the snowbelt primaries and aided him in winning six straight primaries. In the New Hampshire primary campaign, however, Bush made a costly mistake when he stubbornly refused to allow other candidates to participate in a televised debate that had originally been scheduled to include only Bush and his most serious challenger for the nomination, Ronald Reagan. A few months later, just before the crucial California primary, Baker persuaded Bush to withdraw from the race. He later admitted that Bush's taking the vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket was “in [his] mind always as a fallback.”

The timing and grace of the withdrawal decision undoubtedly made it easier for hardcore conservatives to accept Bush--a comparatively moderate Republican--as Reagan's running mate at the Republican National Convention. At Bush's suggestion Baker joined the Reagan campaign team as a senior adviser. Responsible for drawing up the budget for the final weeks of the campaign, he successfully argued in favor of cutting salaries and other personnel costs and putting that money into media advertising. He was also involved in the negotiations for the television debates with President Carter and with John B. Anderson, the Independent candidate. Against the advice of Edwin Meese 3d, Reagan's longtime associate, Baker pressed for a showdown debate with Carter. “I knew Reagan wipes people out in debates . . . ,” he explained to Tony Kornheiser. “I knew that there were people on the fence about Reagan, people who'd heard he was a bomb-thrower”—that is, a trigger-happy political extremist. “The only way to overcome that impression was to get him on TV. . . . I knew Reagan would show better than Carter. Reagan never loses a debate.” Baker was one of several aides who helped coach Reagan for the final television confrontation with Carter. In the opinion of many political analysts, that debate clinched the election for Reagan.

Ten days after Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency, on November 14, 1980, Baker was named White House chief of staff. His main duty in that post was to supervise the activities of nearly 1,300 White House employees; he also served as a trusted senior adviser to President Reagan, particularly in the area of legislative affairs. Baker’s appointment surprised Washington insiders, many of whom had predicted that the new president would choose Ed Meese, the chief of staff during Reagan's tenure as governor of California. Moreover, Baker was considerably more moderate politically than the other members of Reagan’s inner White House circle. In addition to managing the White House personnel office, he oversaw the operations of the legislative-affairs, public-liaison, press and communications, political-affairs, and speechwriting offices. Baker had further responsibilities as a member of the National Security Council and as a senior foreign-policy adviser. “It's a managerial job,” he explained to Louise Sweeney for the Christian Science Monitor (December 30, 1980). “I think you've got to be able to make that train run efficiently, or the President will not appear to have it all together. You've got to be low key and low visibility because your own role is that of an honest broker. . . . I have to refrain from . . . suggesting policy options to the President.” “You see,” he went on, “I have to make sure that he gets all sides of every question, and that everybody who should have a chance to contribute to that decision has a chance.”

In Washington circles Baker, presidential counselor Ed Meese, and Michael Deaver, the deputy chief of staff, quickly became known as the “Big Three” or the “Troika” of the Reagan administration. The extent of the authority exercised by those three men was perhaps first revealed to the public on March 30, 1981, when the president was wounded in an assassination attempt. In the harrowing hours following the shooting, they made almost all of the crucial decisions. For example, once they knew that President Reagan's life was not in immediate danger and that the international situation was stable, the three decided it was not necessary to invoke the 25th Amendment, which would have transferred power to Vice President Bush. During his 12-day hospital stay, Reagan relied heavily on his daily meetings with Baker, Meese, and Deaver for briefings and for help in decision-making.

During Reagan's first few months in office, Baker concentrated on securing congressional passage of Reagan's controversial supply-side tax and budget package. A firm believer that supply creates its own demand, Reagan advocated an economic policy of lower taxes and increased production, as opposed to the classical economic model that attempts to stimulate demand by first improving economic conditions. According to Secretary of the Treasury Donald T. Regan, as quoted in People (August 31, 1981), “Baker never left his desk, but he told the President when to play the good guy, when to play the bad guy, when to call a Senator or a Congressman” who might be wavering in his or her support for the president's plans. Representative Jack Kemp, the co-author of the Kemp-Roth bill, a comprehensive federal tax-cut proposal, added, “With all due respect to the President and Secretary Regan, it was Baker who got the budget and tax package passed.”

Although he had long contended that “you can't be an honest broker and push policy,” Baker nonetheless worked closely with Meese and other advisers on policy formulation and legislative strategy. (During his time as Reagan’s chief of staff, Baker was nicknamed the “Velvet Hammer” for his ability to beat political opponents without making enemies.) In planning sessions he argued against the creation of a so-called “super Cabinet” in which some department secretaries would have had to report to others. Fearing a “power play” by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Baker successfully urged that Vice President Bush be named to head the National Security Council's crisis-management committee. He also helped smooth over the objections of right-to-life groups to President Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first female associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. In addition, in 1982 and 1983 Baker helped to secure a deal with the Democratic-controlled Congress on Social Security reform, which created the first-ever trust fund guaranteeing benefits for future senior citizens. Reagan signed the 1983 law accelerating an increase in the payroll-tax rate, adding employees to the Social Security system, and slowly increasing the age for receiving full retirement benefits—measures that, in the face of predictions that Social Security benefits would soon disappear, ensured their continuation for the next 20 years. (As of early 2007, however, many experts were forecasting a shortfall in the Social Security program, as the “baby boom” generation begins to retire.)

Though the Baker-supported tax-cut package did not initially produce results sufficient to lift the country out of recession, by November 1984 the American public was feeling secure enough in the nation’s economic outlook to give Reagan a landslide victory over former vice president Walter Mondale, his Democratic challenger, in that year’s presidential election. As for Baker himself, the successes of Reagan’s first term—as well as his skillful management of Reagan’s reelection campaign—had brought him virtually unchallenged authority in the White House.

In February 1985 Baker and Don Regan switched jobs, with the former becoming secretary of the treasury and the latter chief of staff. When he took over the Department of the Treasury, Baker had very little experience in the realm of tax and finance, apart from having helped to steer Reagan’s economic stimulus and tax-cut package through Congress. In order to achieve Reagan’s goals at the Treasury Department, Baker brought with him from the White House Richard Darman, who would serve as his economic adviser while Baker negotiated compromises with Congress.

During Baker’s first year as treasury secretary, the greatest challenge he faced was to push through Congress an overhaul of the tax system. Defying predictions, his efforts led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which simplified the income-tax code, expanded the tax base, and eliminated a number of tax shelters. Today, the passage of that legislation is considered to be the last domestic success of Reagan’s presidency. Though tax reform is now considered one of Baker’s major achievements as head of the Treasury Department, his initial successes came in the international arena, when he negotiated an agreement that drove down the dollar’s value for the sake of increasing trade and introduced a program to aid indebted nations in the developing world. At the halfway mark of Baker's term as treasury secretary, Lenny Glynn wrote for the Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine (November 1986), “There is ample reason to argue that . . . Baker has already made more of a mark on the U.S. dollar—and world finance generally—than any U.S. treasury secretary since flamboyant fellow Texan John Connally orchestrated the last gasp of the gold standard in 1971–73.” In addition to his work as secretary of the treasury, Baker was also assigned to serve as chair of the President’s Economic Policy Council.

Baker left the Treasury Department in 1988 to manage George H. W. Bush’s campaign for the presidency that year. After helping to fend off attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party, which criticized Bush’s positions on such hot-button social issues as abortion and flag burning, Baker secured Bush’s overwhelming, come-from-behind victory against the Democratic challenger, Governor Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, in the general election. The 1988 presidential campaign is generally remembered as one of the most brutal of recent times. As head of Bush’s campaign team, Baker was criticized for his use of mudslinging tactics, in particular a number of attack ads focusing on Dukakis’s character and his actions as governor.

Shortly after Bush took office, in January 1989, he named his old friend to the post of secretary of state, a position Baker had long desired. As the nation’s chief diplomat, Baker soon found himself challenged by a shift in global politics. Foreign policy during the Reagan administration had been directed at confronting communism—both its existing form, in the Soviet Union, and its possible emergence in other areas of the world, such as Latin America. Reagan’s doctrine had mandated that the United States negotiate with the Soviets only from a position of strength, achieved through a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear arms. By his second term, Reagan had become more willing to sign accords with the Soviets to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1988 the Soviet Union officially declared that it would no longer intervene in the affairs of its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. A year later Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, where they had been waging a war of aggression since 1979.

Though it was not common knowledge at the time, communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was in its death throes when George Bush became president. Battered by a poor economy, an overstretched military, and poor infrastructure, the Soviet Union faced the first public recognition of its weakening grip on power on November 9, 1989, when masses of East Berliners, cut off from the rest of the city since the early 1960s by the Berlin Wall, were allowed by East German and Soviet authorities to cross the border and take part in a jubilant celebration with their brethren in the West. The wall was destroyed over the next several weeks by a euphoric German public who longed for reunification, which was officially declared on October 3, 1990. Baker, in his position as secretary of state, was the key negotiator in the reunification process.

Meanwhile, knowing that little was to be gained by further confrontation with the West, the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had met President Bush in Malta in December 1989 to declare a formal end to the Cold War. Shortly thereafter, the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe, as well as Soviet republics including Lithuania, began declaring their independence from the Soviet Union, as their citizens called for elections. In the Soviet Union itself the Communist regime was collapsing, despite hardliners' resistance to Gorbachev’s reforms. A 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev failed, leading the way for Boris Yeltsin and others to advocate the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In December 1991 the Soviet Union was voted out of existence by its own legislature, and its 15 republics became independent nations. Yeltsin subsequently became president of a newly democratic Russia.

One of the major challenges Baker faced during that remarkable period was helping to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, which had been stationed throughout its 15 republics and in parts of Eastern Europe. In early December 1991, following a Ukrainian vote that supported the nation's full independence from Russia, Baker traveled to the capital, Kiev, to discuss the control of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As other former Soviet states became independent, the Bush administration expressed concern that those states could threaten one another—or other nations—with the nuclear weapons on their soil. In order to guard against such a threat, Baker and other White House officials negotiated with their Russian counterparts the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991 and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction of 1992, which reduced the number of nuclear weapons and brought the remainder under the control of the Russian government. During the negotiations Baker played a key role in ensuring that all former Soviet republics were free of nuclear weapons. He also helped to provide aid packages to the former Soviet republics, as they made the transition to democratic government.

The other major foreign-policy crisis faced by the Bush administration erupted on August 2, 1990, when Iraq's then-president, Saddam Hussein, sent 120,000 troops to invade neighboring Kuwait, whose forces quickly capitulated. Declaring Kuwait to be a reclaimed province of Iraq, Hussein now personally controlled one-fifth of the world's oil reserves. Some speculated that Hussein would keep supplying oil and reap even greater profits than before, others that he would cut back the flow of oil and make up the difference in increased prices. There were fears among world leaders that Hussein would press on to Saudi Arabia or other oil-producing countries--perhaps in an attempt to unite all Arab countries under his rule--and initiate a final confrontation with Israel.

The Bush administration asked the United Nations to enforce economic sanctions against Hussein’s regime, demanding a worldwide boycott of Iraqi oil. Well known for his pragmatic approach, Baker was an early and strong advocate of imposing sanctions on Iraq, hoping that economic pressure alone would force Hussein to cede control of Kuwait. The U.N. implemented the sanctions, which failed to persuade Hussein to recall his troops from Kuwait. After negotiating with other world leaders, Bush and Baker then proceeded to amass a large coalition of United Nations forces in the region--led mainly by the U.S. and composed primarily of U.S. troops--to demand Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq failed to comply with the January 15, 1991 deadline; the next day, coalition forces commenced air attacks on Iraq, followed by an invading ground force of about half a million troops five weeks later. Four days after that, Iraq agreed to a ceasefire and to the terms of disarmament stipulated by the U.N.

Baker spent the latter half of his time as secretary of state working on a wide variety of issues. In addition to hammering out nuclear-weapons treaties with Russia, he attempted to enact a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He also increased trade with China, at the same time pressing that Communist regime to ease its suppression of human rights and limit its missile sales. Chinese officials only grudgingly gave him a promise to curtail missile sales and to allow dissidents to leave the country. The country's human rights record remains a source of tension between China and the U.S.

In 1992 President Bush encountered serious challenges to his reelection from the Democrat Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas, and H. Ross Perot, the maverick billionaire businessman who had launched a strong third-party candidacy. Saddled with a sluggish economy and sagging poll numbers, Bush asked Baker in the summer of 1992 to come back to the White House as his chief of staff and campaign strategist. Leaving the State Department was difficult for Baker, who loved working there. “I hated to leave that job,” Baker told John Spong for Texas Monthly (December 2003). “The only time I can ever remember losing my composure was when I said good-bye to the people at State. It was an emotional moment.” Baker took charge of Bush's reelection campaign in August 1992, shortly after the Republican National Convention was held in Houston. His efforts failed: the voting public, apparently weary of the president’s focus on foreign affairs at a time when the country was in an economic downturn, elected Clinton—who won with a minority of the popular vote (43 percent) but a majority of votes in the Electoral College. (Perot drew 19 percent of the popular vote, most of it, analysts generally agree, coming from citizens who would otherwise have voted for Bush.)

With the failure of Bush’s reelection bid, Baker found himself out of Washington politics for the first time in 12 years--and, at age 62, out of a job. He did not remain unemployed for long. He became a senior partner at his family's firm, Baker & Botts, while devoting much of his time to the establishment, in 1993, of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, which he continues to serve as honorary chairman. According to its Web site, the Baker Institute “is strictly non-partisan and dedicated to the highest standards of intellectual excellence and integrity with the goal of helping bridge the gap between the theory and practice of public policy by drawing together experts from academia, government, the media, business, and non-governmental organizations. By so doing, the institute will broaden the professional perspective and personal understanding of all those involved in the study, formulation, execution, and criticism of public policy.” The institute publishes policy papers, sponsors research fellowships, and organizes gatherings of eminent public officials to discuss government policy concerning such diverse topics as energy consumption, space exploration, global climate change, Latin America, and the current crisis in Iraq. A variety of world leaders have spoken at the behest of the Baker Institute, including Russian president Vladimir Putin and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

In addition to his work with the institute, Baker served as a consultant for the energy giant Enron, mainly writing papers on the political situations in nations where Enron conducted business. He left Enron in 1994, long before the company’s name became synonymous in the public mind with corporate irresponsibility. Somewhat more controversially, the former secretary of state also worked for the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.–based private equity firm that facilitates the purchases of companies, among other activities. Widely reported to be, in effect, the 11th-largest defense contractor in the United States, the Carlyle Group has a client base that extends to nations including Saudi Arabia and has had a number of former politicians, including George H. W. Bush and former British prime minister John Major, on its payroll; the Carlyle Group has drawn criticism for its mingling of political, business, and national-defense interests. Baker has dismissed such criticism, while stressing in interviews that his Carlyle Group work has mainly consisted of giving speeches on world politics.

In 1997 Baker was named as the personal envoy of U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan to Western Sahara, where it was hoped that he could hammer out a peace accord between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, which sought Western Sahara's independence from Morocco. Unable to make headway in the negotiations, Baker resigned from the position in 2004, leaving behind a plan that has been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Baker's return to partisan politics came about shortly after the November 7, 2000 presidential election, when he received a call from the Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush, the oldest son of the former president. The younger Bush had run against Vice President Al Gore; the election hinged on a recount of votes in Florida, where the initial count gave Bush the victory by only a few hundred votes. Bush asked Baker to take charge of the Republican team helping to monitor the recount, while Gore tapped former secretary of state Warren Christopher to handle matters on the Democratic side by contesting the results of the election in the Florida courts. Baker countered through his team of 100 lawyers with a motion to stop the recounts altogether and allow the original count to stand. He also devised the strategy of taking the recount fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where he felt that the Bush team would get a fairer hearing than in the mostly Democratic-appointed state courts. The Supreme Court put an end to the recounts, giving Bush the presidency. Baker, meanwhile, saw his nonpartisan image tarnished. Following the recount fight, he returned to private life. In the hope of preventing another episode of the kind that had occurred in Florida, he agreed to co-chair, with former president Jimmy Carter, a commission to recommend changes in the voting process in national elections.

In early 2006 George W. Bush called on Baker again, to help him with a seemingly insurmountable problem—the Iraq war. (The original justification for the war was to rid Iraq of so-called weapons of mass destruction; no such weapons were found there.) Though the initial phase of the war—beginning with the invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces on March 20, 2003 and culminating in the capture of Saddam Hussein—was thought to be successful, the period of U.S. occupation has been marked by increasing violence between Sunni and Shiite factions, as each Muslim group vies for power in Iraq. As the growing insurgency against Iraq's fledgling democratic government threatened throughout 2005 and early 2006 to destabilize the country, Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, proposed that a 10-person bipartisan commission be established to study the situation and suggest military and political options. With matters in Iraq worsening, President Bush saw his approval rating plummet, taking with it the fortunes of the Republican Party, which had majorities in both houses of Congress. In the midterm elections of November 2006, voters gave the Democratic Party majorities in both houses for the first time since 1994.

Earlier, when Congress approved funds to establish the Iraq Study Group, in March 2006, two men were asked to co-chair it: Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. (Baker had worked with the second Bush administration in 2003, serving as the president’s envoy on the issue of Iraqi debt.) With the other eight members of their bipartisan commission, Baker and Hamilton worked from March through early December 2006, interviewing both U.S. and Iraqi officials, visiting Iraq to get a better understanding of the insurgency, and contacting world leaders with a vested interest in Iraq. When they completed their work, they unanimously approved 79 recommendations to be presented to the president and Congress. After the release of their 100-page report, on December 6, Baker publicly urged that the administration embrace it in its entirety. “I hope,” he said at the time, as quoted by Michael Duffy and Mike Allen in Time (December 18, 2006), “we don’t treat this like a fruit salad and say, ‘I like this, but I don’t like that.’”

Eschewing the ideal of democracy that the Bush administration had called the only true measure of victory in Iraq, the Iraq Study Group characterized the situation there as “grave and deteriorating” and presented a pragmatic approach that favored stability for the country above all else. Among the Baker-Hamilton commission’s recommendations were a withdrawal of U.S. forces from combat operations by the first quarter of 2008; an increase in the number of embedded U.S. trainers in the Iraqi army and police forces; an aggressive new diplomatic push to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which would include direct negotiations with Iran and Syria; and a timetable for accomplishments by the Iraqi government, complete with penalties for noncompliance. The commission’s highly anticipated report got a mixed reception. Opponents of the war felt that the report did not go far enough in its recommendations for withdrawal, while advocates of the war argued that the recommendations to engage Syria and Iran—two nations long suspected of helping to stir up sectarian violence in Iraq—were misguided. Baker's hope that the Bush administration would adopt all of the report's recommendations appears to have been dashed: after studying the Baker-Hamilton commission’s report and consulting with other advisers, the president called in January 2007 for the deployment of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops in Iraq.

After the death of his first wife, Mary (McHenry) Baker, whom he had wed in 1953, Baker married Susan Garrett Winston, one of Mary’s best friends and the daughter of a Texas rancher, on August 6, 1973. He has four sons--James IV, Stewart, John, and Douglas--by his first wife, and three stepchildren from Susan Baker's first marriage, which ended in divorce. The Bakers' youngest child, Mary Bonner Baker, was born in 1977. The recipient of the 1992 Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed on him by the first President Bush, Baker is the author of two books: The Politics of Diplomacy (1995), a reflection on his time as secretary of state, and “Work Hard, Study . . . And Keep Out of Politics!” (2006), a memoir.

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