15 February 2009

"Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!" by James A. Baker, III

"Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!" Adventures and Lessons from an Unexpected Public Life
Written by James A. Baker, III with Steve Fiffer
Date of publication: 5 October 2006
Cover Price: $28.95
480 pages

I was 11 years old when the Operation: Desert Shield gave way to Operation: Desert Storm. The war made a celebrity of General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf but for me, the face of the war was Secretary of State Jim Baker. I recall many mornings before leaving for school watching Secretary Baker's press conferences, and it was the first time I paid any attention to anyone in government who wasn't the president. My sense of the man was that the was exactly the kind of person we wanted at a high level of government--he always seemed to balance appreciating the urgency of war with the reassuring demeanor a leader must convey at such times.

Mr. Baker has published an account of his years as President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State, so this memoirs is a more generalized reflection of his years of service in the federal government. The book is generally organized chronologically, though unfortunately Mr. Baker skips around frequently. It is not out of the ordinary, for instance, to read a reference to post-September 11 policies during a chapter on the Reagan era. Baker also takes for granted that anyone picking up his book already has a working knowledge of recent U.S. history and government policies. Fortunately, I did but I would not recommend this for people just learning the inside story of Washington.

Baker has been a close personal friend of George Bush and does not apologize for defending his friend and president--nor should he have. Still, I wonder if he considered how it would play to a reader like me to read, for instance, in response to Marilynn Quayle's campaign attacks on George W. Bush that, "I know for a fact that these remarks did not endear her to the Bush family." At times, it seems that Baker is too grateful to be included by the Bushes in their goings-on. I do not take issue with their genuine friendship cultivated over years, but rather the near-gossipping, insider perspective that this gives portions of his narrative.

Still, these are small gripes about a fascinating perspective into the last thirty years of U.S. government. President Reagan, by all accounts, was a delegator, leaving the execution of his policies to more experienced and capable cabinet members. Baker served as Mr. Reagan's White House Chief of Staff during his first term, and Secretary of the Treasury in his second. His insight into those years--and those positions--is genuinely compelling. I would strongly advise that current Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel at the very least read this book; ideally, he would meet with Secretary Baker personally and pick his brain.

Ultimately, this is the kind of information that someone fascinated by the inner workings of the executive branch will find irresistable. Again, I would not encourage anyone to begin their studies with this book. A good place to start might be David Gergen's Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership from Nixon to Clinton. Still, once you've got a sense of the major players and events, you should certainly spend some time with Secretary Baker's perspective.

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