Washington — They call him the velvet hammer. He's the new Hamilton Jordan, the new H. R. Haldeman, the new White House chief of staff.
He's the ultimate urban cowboy, a tall, twangy Texan who's going to be second in command to the next president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. But James Baker III, the Houston lawyer who rode shotgun for Jerry Ford, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan in their presidential campaigns, plans to keep a low profile in the White House. You won't see his Stetson showing over the rim of the hill too often.
Jim Baker is keenly aware that his two predecessors were moving targets in a high-powered world. But he is a vastly different from both of them -- from the authoritarian, "German shepherd" image H. R. Haldeman projected and from the anti-establishment, flamboyant, disorganized, and controversial Hamilton Jordan. It's highly improbable that Mr. Baker and top presidential adviser Edwin Meese, who will be the head honchos under Mr. Reagan in the White House, would ever pose dressed as Butch Cassity and the Sundance Kid, the way Hamilton Jordan and press secretary Jody Powell did for a Rolling Stone cover story four years ago.
When Jim Baker is asked what his image will be as chief of staff, he answers as cautiously as Gary Cooper riding into a new town. "It's a tough job, I'll tell you. You don't make any friends in this job. . . . First place, it's a manager job. 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 one role is that of an honest broker, your primary responsibility.
"You see, all the papers are going to come through me, all the appointments are going to come through me, including the policies that are developed, will flow through one central point. I have to be an honest broker. I have to refrain from imposing, . . . suggesting, policy options to the president.
"You see, 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.
"Now I can't do that effectively if I'm out there every day sounding off on policy. I can't answer policy questions or have a press conference or be on a talk show, or people on one side of the issue will see me as slanting [the issue ] for the president. Now I hope I'm explaining this to you -- so, low visibility is something that in order to be an honest broker I think I have to strive for. Now, that dun mean" -- he pronounces "doesn't" "dun," Texas style -- "it dun mean that I ought to be inaccessible to the press.
"I've got a lot of friends from my prior experiences in the press, and I want to maintain those friendships. And I expect to talk to 'em. . . . But I ought not to be out there every day or every week with a high profile. If I can avoid it, I ought not to see my name in weekly news magazines being quoted as saying [ something] . . ., 'cause when you become in that job a public figure in your own right, you get enough people shootin' at you as it is. Okay? And the more you do that, the more people are gonna shoot atcha."
There is a disarming quality about Jim Baker, but it does not appear to be calculated. It has something to do with the earnestness and candor of his expression as he talks. He is compelling, like a man explaining quietly that if you go into that canyon, you're sure to be ambushed. He has an extremely direct but not hard gaze -- if he were an actor he would be described as having melting brown eyes.
The expression in those eyes suggests that he has learned compassion through tragedy in his own life. And he has. The fatal illness of his first wife left him a widower with four sons, the youngest 10 years old.
He has since remarried, giving him an "Eight is Enough" family, ranging from 26 to 3 years old: his four children, her three, their three-year-old daughter.
Part of Mr. Baker's disarming quality springs from his low-key, quiet reasonableness. He has a talent for involving the listener, not polarizing the issue.
"He's a lot tougher that he comes across," cautions his first cousin Preston Moore, who grew up with Jim Baker in Houston. Mr. Moore, president of the Wilson Office Products Company, says "He's gonna stand up there and be counted, and he's gonna be tough. He's strong. He's a friendly person, but the toughness is there. He's a velvet hammer." And his friend, Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R) of Wyoming, adds, "I'd say he's firm and decisive, but I wouldn't use the word tough, because he has no rough edges. He's smooth, cool, competent, with an aura of confidence."
The announcement of Mr. Baker as White House chief of staff came as a surprise to some experts in poltics and the press who declared Mr. Meese the front-runner for the job. The "conventional wisdom," to use one of the trendy government phrases, was that Mr. Baker got the job because he was: (a) more organized than Edwin Meese, and (b) not a member of the California circle, not one of the insiders Mr. Reagan had been accused of surrounding himself with.
Does Jim Baker figure those are the reasons he got the job?
He answers softly, with a come-now-let-us-reason-together appeal: "It wouldn't look very good if I said yes, would it?"
But would he like to say yes?
His response: "So I won't say yes. I do think there was a desire to bring people in at the top levels of the White House who were not Californians and that was probably something that was going for me. I don't know how to answer that for you, other than to tell you that my charge when the governor talked to me was to handle the uh, well, let me see how to put this. . . .The chief of staff's office historically has been where politics and government meet. And that's what he wants me to do. Handle the political side and make the train run.
"It's a big operation, 1,300 people in the White House and the executive office of the president, and I think he's counting on me to administer it, organize it, and handle the political side of it, which includes the congressional relations, press relations, personnel, public liaison, the outreach programs at the White House."
Listen carefully as the velvet hammer comes down ever so softly but firmly to drive home the fact that, under him, the White House staff would not lose any of its power. We are talking about a remark by William Casey, CIA chief-designate, who said at one point that the Reagan administration would be like Eisenhower's -- "people of experience, of heavier weight, more of a sense of authority, with greater emphasis on the cabinet," and that the White House staff "would nto have such a heavy hand."
Mr. Baker pauses, then begins the swing gently. "Um hm. Well, let me tell you what I see. I don't think that a strong cabinet and a strong White House staff are mutually exclusive. I don't think it's an either-or situation. I think you can have a strong cabinet and a strong White House staff, and that it's to the president's advantage to [have] that.
"We are trying to put people in at the senior levels of this White House that meet some of the criteria you quoted me that Bill Casey said. We're not going to have a lot of political apparatchiks coming in to high level jobs at the White House. We're notm !" he says, and the hammer, though muffled, is heard.
Mr. Baker has an assurance that's muted, but never mistake the fact that it's there. You can catch a glimpse of it on the office wall as he talks: a framed medallion hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon. It was awarded to him by Bush campaign worker Bruce Gelb in memory of the night of the Republican convention when Governor Reagan chose his vice-presidential running mate.
At 11:30 that convention night, when all of George Bush's troops and Bush himself had given up hope of his being named vice-president, Jim Baker dug in his spurs and said grimly, "It's not over yet." He was right of course; Baker's man Bush won the vice-presidential race. The words "Baker Says It's Not Over Yet" are inscribed on the award, which looks like an Olympic gold medal.
As friends, George Bush and Jim Baker go back as long as jack rabbit ears. George bush is the reason he got into politics, Baker says. They met in Houston in the late 1950s as tennis partners, when Baker was still a born (if not a yellow dog) Democrat. They were introduced by Baker's first wife, an active Republican who knew Bush through relatives in the Midwest.
"I was apolitical," says Baker, who was a Houston lawyer until 1970 when his close friend George Bush asked him to handle his Senate race. "Well that did it. I couldn't very well do that as a Democrat," he grins. His first wife had been working hard to convert him, he adds.
In the ten years since then, Jim Baker has made up for his former disinterest with a vengeance. Bush had asked him to run in 1969 for his old seat in Congress, but he was unable to because of his wife's illness. Although Bush lost the Senate race in Texas, he did win 61 percent of the vote in the Houston area, which Baker had handled. Next, Baker did a one-year stint as state finance chairman for the Republican party of Texas.
In 1972 he ran, unsuccessfully, for attorney general on the Republican ticket in Texas, the state where Republicans traditionally have little chance of being elected to any job short of governor.
"It was the first time we had ever fielded a candidate who could raise any money; I raised a million and a half dollars to run for attorney general," he says.
In 1975 Rogers C. B. Morton, secretary of the interior, was scouting for a business lawyer for the Department of Commerce so he brought Mr. Baker up from Texas to be undersecretary.
"Morton brought me up but I think Bush put him up to it. . . . George wouldn't admit to being the reason," smiles Baker. "It was about six months after that that President Ford asked me to come over to the [presidential] campaign."
Baker became a chairman of the President Ford Committee in Ford's '76 race first againstm Ronald Reagan and then against Jimmy Carter. In 1979 he became chairman of George Bush's presidential campaign against Reagan. He then worked as senior adviser to the Reagan-Bush Committee, until that stroke of amazing grace when his former adversary, Ronald Reagan, chose him as White House chief of staff.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather when he asked me to do this," says Baker.
He wasn't expecting it?
"Naw. Coming from there I'd come from, I mean I'd been Ford's campaign manager, I'd been Bush's campaign manager, so obviously I had to be flattered by it."
What does Baker think he did in the Reagan campaign that resulted in is being tapped for chief of staff?
"If it was anything, it might have been the way we arranged the debate briefings and handled the debate negotiations --," says Mr. Baker, who had held out for Reagan to debate Carter one-on-one at the end, against all opposition. He adds, "I'm not all sure that he might not have based his decision on factors other than what I did just in the campaign."
He continues: "I'm not sure whether he discussed it with George and frankly George wouldn't tell me if he had."
Vice-president-elect George Bush believes Mr. Reagan's choice of Baker "has to do with the man, the qualities he has, the fiber of the person. . . . Reagan knows his qualities, has seen him in action. . . . I think that Ronald Reagan is a good judge of character."
Some of the qualities that Mr. Bush believes Baker brings to a job are honor, integrity, warmth as a human being, loyalty. When Baker was running his campaign Bush says he had total confidence and trust in him:
"He picked up the reins and drove the team and permitted me to concentrate on what a candidate should concentrate on --
He notes that Baker is not afraid to be the messenger who brings the bad news , that he tells it candidly, from the heart. And he speaks of the fact that Baker has often "helped others run for office without trying to build himself up."
Baker is aggressive and competitive, his long-time friend and tennis partner notes, but he also knows how to be supportive in a job. As for flaws -- "He's an excellent tennis player, but his service is not known for its blinding speed, " Mr. Bush adds.
One of Baker's most important qualities, Mr. Bush says, is "his finely honed perception of loyalty" which will be important "as he serves the President of the United States. If it should put him in conflict with the vice-president, he would never carry water for me on any position."
When Jim Baker is asked how -- if the time should ever come -- a President Bush would be different from a President Reagan, he stops short. He approaches the question in a soft, wary way, like a rancher stopping just short of a rattlesnake.
"I wouldn't want to get into that," he finally drawls. "He [Bush] and I have beek like this" he holds up two fingers together "and still are. . . . That's one thing about my appointment I think is a plus. Historically, the vice-president has been cut out, not my reason of antipathy between the president and vice-president, but because their staffs start fighting. And the fact that I'm in there means that't not going to happen in this administration. And yet my loyalty now should be and is to President Reagan. And I'm very con scious of that."
He pauses, like a lawyer making a final argument. "And I believe I can seperate out my close friendship with George Bush from my obligation and duty of loyalty to President Reagan."
He leans forward in his chair to make that point, this tall, lean Texan with the wavy gray hair and soft brown eyes. He packs a Stetson and jeans and cowboy boots, but not here, not in the urban corral of the Capitol. As one of the president's men, he is dressed like the Princeton graduate he is, wearing reassuring Eastern establishment duds: navy pin-striped suit (jacket off), dark red tie with pin dots, pale blue shirt, high-shine black leather oxfords.
He is an attractive man who gives the impression of being as relaxed as he is affable -- until you notice that he has a habit of wringing his hands ever so slowly as he talks, brushing his fingers together as though checking to see whether the fingernails are still there.
Baker has been described in the press as calm, controlled, highly organized, unflappable. It's the unflappable that stops him: "I don't know whether it's true or not. I may be unflappable from the outside but I'm sure everybody's flappable on the inside.
"Organized? I'm supposed to be. Basically, I'm modest, and that's the toughest thing I've found about running for office. You've got to get out there and blow your own horn. It's like Lyndon Johnson said, "He who tooteth not his own horn shall not have his own horn tooted.' And in politics that's really true to a large degree."
A cousin, Preston Moore, says Baker is articulate, honest, and smart.
"He doesn't come to town on a load of wood, he's a pretty bright guy, he's experienced."
Mr. Moore says Baker is a true Texan, loves his ranch in south Texas, loves to camp out under the stars when it's 22 degrees F. But his Texas roots, though deep, are more complex than the boots-and-saddle stereotype. As George Bush points out, Baker is one of the great names in Texas, associated with Rice University and one of the great law firms. Like his daddy before him, Jim Baker went to Princeton, got his law degree at the University of Texas Law School in Austin, became a partner not in the family firm which had a rule against nepotism, but in the equally prestigious Houston law firm of andrews, Kurth, Campbell, and Jones.
The Bakers and their eight children have a home in Houston, but deep in the heart of Texas is his favorite place, the ranch near San Antonio that he says isn't big by Texas standards.
"It's 1,360 acres, that's small. You need 28 acres for a cow. It's very arid. . . . My ranch is just like southern Africa -- everything's got a thorn in it. It's something called the brush country of south Texas."
He likes to hunt game there; his idea of relaxing is to sit in a blind, hunting for tough turkeys and thinking. The hunting is not just part of his Texas tradition; as a marine at Camp Lejeune, N. C., he was on the pistol and rifle team.Fishing is another relaxer -- what's called "wade fishing" in the shallow salt water and coastal bays of Texas, fishing for weakfish, red drum, sea trout.
The man who is inevitably described as loyal is a fan of Tammy ("Stand By Your Man") Wynette and other country and western stars like George Jones. He likes to watch pro football, roots for the Oilers (in Washington, for the Redskins, except against Dallas), and doesn't have time to read anything except professional stuff.
Back in the days when he did, he read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," one of his favorite books, twice. History intrigues him; he was classic major -- "Herodotus, Thucydides all that," but wrote his thesis at Princeton on the British Labour Party from 1945-52. That was when he was still a Democrat.
Jim Baker had followed faithfully in the footsteps of his father, whom he idolized, right up until the time he switched parties and in a sense, switched lives. "He [Baker's father] was dead by then [the time Baker left his 18-year practice with a major law firm] but I've often wondered, politics was sort of a dirty word, well, not a dirty word, but some people practiced law and other people were politicians and if you were a politician it was not necessarily a noble undertaking. My mother, who's still alive, tells me he would have approved of what I've done politically.'
One of his regrets is that he has not been able to spend as much time with his children as his father did with him.
"I spent quite a bit of time with my boys after their mother's death [Mary Steuart McHenry] and to some degree sort of put the law practice second."
After his second marriage, to Susan Garrett Winston, he found "putting two families together where there's been a loss of a spouse in each family is tough. She'd lost her husband. . . . The first couple of years it's rough, a lot of rivalry for time and attention, space and affection. They moved into our house and some of my children were less than cordial. Turf problems. Now it's good, it's very good."
Susan Baker calls her husband "beautifully balanced," speaks of his stability , his affectionate nature, the fact that he's "a giver of himself. . . . He's generous, he cares about people."
She talks candidly as the wife of a man who will be bearing one of the biggest burdens in Washington, one which will take long hours from the family which means so much to both of them:
"We have a real covenant about our Washington experience. I cried all night when I heard he was going to be chief of staff. I know what's involved. He was gone two years campaigning. I know this job means 14-hour days. I enjoy him so much. So when I heard, I cried and prayed, and cried and prayed. We believe very strongly that God is in control of our lives. We choose to ask Him to be in control of our lives.
"So we've decided it will be a wonderful thing, even if it isn't a wonderful thing, It willm be wonderful. We're not going to let the barbs and darts overcome the big picture, this big job the president has asked him to do, and to be part of an incredibly bit [experience]. So now I feel we have a covenant about it. I'm very joyful about it."
Baker's own view of this job which wields so much power is this: "Power? Power's not important to me. Material things aren't important to me. Accomplishments are. Achieving things is important. I love the contest, the politics, the power's not important to me.Listen, you're not powerful in this job. You ought to write this down, 'cause this is my philosophy:
"The minute I start thinking I'm powerful, then I'm losing my perspective on the job. I'm important only because of the president and my relationship there.' Period. And the worst thing you could do in this job is to get thinking about how powerful you are."