There was a time when Texans in Washington shoveled money back to the Lone Star State with both hands, and they didn't bother too much with amenities like hair oil and ethics. Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson used the New Deal like an upended pipeline to flood the homeland with federal dollars, helping make it a kind of chicken-fried Saudi Arabia. They belonged to a tradition of emissaries going back to the Republic of Texas, a WASP oil sheikdom with its own gulf, its own navy, its own ambassadors and, of course, its own currency.
The Texas politicians abroad became a certifiable type: earthy, colorful, ambitious, and effective as hell. They cajoled and twisted arms for a number of American presidents, enjoying varying amounts of power, and bourbon, in the process. A Texan, Col. Edward House, served as Woodrow Wilson's alter ego. Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, "Cactus Jack" Garner, thought so little of his leverage that he compared the job to a bucket of warm spit. The death of John Kennedy made the profane, fabulously savvy Lyndon Johnson the most powerful man in the world, but failed to satisfy needs born in the wind-scoured stretches of west Texas.
Now there are two Texans in the White House, and they are a very different breed. James A. Baker III, chief of staff, and George Bush, vice president, known locally as Texas Republicans, lack the showmanship and the glad press of the flesh that characterized their predecessors. They are as removed from LBJ and Rayburn as the Brazos River is from the Watergate pool, corporate technicians who seem cloned in air-conditioned offices and given a dose of Texas as if it were hoof- and-mouth serum.
For instance, Baker and Bush are good at appointive politics--doing jobs doled out to them--and dishrag-limp when it comes to getting themselves elected to anything more than a board of directors. First, Bush ran for the Senate with Baker's help--and lost. Then, Baker ran for attorney general of Texas with Bush's help--and lost.
Like good Texas politicians, they always celebrated anyway, but in a style many previous Texas politicians would have found terribly Eastern. A spectator at one election-eve party described the scene as "high preppy: It looked like a Brooks Brothers showroom-- all button-down Oxford cloth and horn- rimmed glasses. Everybody in Houston who had gone to an Ivy League school worked in Baker's campaign. They were like British colonials in India-- more British than the people at home."
That ineffable bit of bicultural high gloss can be best described as Tex- prep, a phenomenon that indicates just how much things have changed since LBJ romped on the campaign trail. Bush, for example, has problems impressing the common man. "He doesn't even know how to make a fist," says Texas playwright and journalist Larry King, referring to Bush's habit of brandishing his fists on the podium. "If he had hit a roughneck in a west Texas barroom, he would have broken his thumb." And Baker apparently seems as exotic to rural Texans as condo conversions.
Both men have been much better in intramural skirmishes involving a few well-connected men. Bush was picked for his job to prove that Reagan was no spoiler. "Ronald Reagan knows who he is," says an aide, meaning that the president is secure enough to have his adversary in the primaries as a running mate. "George knows who he is," echos Pete Teeley, Bush's press secretary, meaning the vice president is man enough to accept the gelded role of vice president with no loss of pride.
Baker was picked because he is a good administrator, and because Nancy Reagan likes him. He is the only one of Reagan's advisers wealthy in his own right, with social graces learned outside the arena of politics. "Nancy appreciates presence," says a former associate. And the image of Baker as a cowboy businessman coincided with that of many of the Reagan's closest California friends.
If Reagan had died from the bullet that pierced his lung last spring, Bush would have become the second Texan in less than two decades to inherit the presidency. And there is little doubt that his friend, Baker, would have stayed around to help him manage it, long after the Reagan Californians had returned to the other coast.
Bush and Baker have been friends for years. They met in Houston, the oilman-turned-congressman and the corporate lawyer respectively. They attended the same party in manicured Southwest Houston one night. Bush lived in Indian Trails, where private security agents make certain outsiders behave themselves, and Baker lived nearby. They began to play tennis at the Houston Country Club.
Bush at that time had decided he wanted to be a senator (he had asked the most powerful Texan he knew, Lyndon Johnson, for his advice about whether to remain a congressman or run for the Senate. Lyndon had told him: "George, the difference between a senator and a congressman is just like the difference between chicken salad and chicken ----."). Baker at that time was content to grease deals through Houston's over-heated corporate tubes, to play more tennis and to shoot at turkeys on the weekends.
Now Bush has the public office, but Baker has the power. In some ways they seem almost interchangeable. "You'll have to look awful hard to find someone critical of Baker," says a former roommate. "Everybody likes George," says a Senate staffer. "They're big shots who don't act like big shots," says Pete Roussel, deputy press secretary at the White House. Roussel was working in Houston when Baker offered him the job. Roussel asked Baker to explain to Roussel's 83-year- old mother why his country needed him more than the Houston Chamber of Commerce. "Jim went out into the garden with her," Roussel says, his voice close to cracking, "and got her permission."
According to a relative Bush's father was born in Ohio and rescued from selling hardware by one of the Harriman brothers he had known at Yale, who invited Prescott Bush to join the family bank. By that time, Baker's father was a millionaire several times over. The Baker money is about as old as Houston can claim.
This fall, on one of the rare Saturdays that Ronald Reagan has worked, Baker came to the White House as an impeccable embodiment of Tex-prep: soft leather cowboy boots with white stitching, and a blue crew-neck sweater with a duck embroidered over the heart. On the wall of his comfortable West Wing office hung a painting of an Indian being chased by cowboys; on his expansive desk sat a pack of Red Man chewing tobacco, Baker's favorite.
"When the president asked me to do this job," he said, "I told him I wanted to think about it." Baker wanted to make sure presidential adviser Ed Meese wouldn't try to cut him off at the knees. "Ed had been chief of staff in California." He paused, apparently not wanting to say what others in the White House say, that Meese expected to have the job Baker got. "I understood enough to have it put on paper who had what specific responsibilities. Communication is the key--we try not to surprise each other."
The smile, the soft drawl, the boots, the western scene and the chaw of Red Man are pure Edna Ferber, but Baker's head belongs to pin-striped flannel. He has the complexion of a drugstore cowboy, and gray hair combed straight back, held in place by some product apparently sold only to Republicans.
The offer of the chief of staff job came two days after Reagan won and reduced Baker's second wife, Susan, to tears. They had lived in Washington before, when Baker was undersecretary of commerce during the Ford administration; she knew how little she would see of her husband.
Today they live on Foxhall Road, in a modest brick chateau that backs up to the rain forest of Battery Kemble Park. The vibrant dining room rug, however, outshines Washington's natural greenery, like a mescal dream of pastureland in parched south Texas.
"Living in Washington is easy," says Susan, an angular, attractive strawberry blonde. "It's just a beautiful place to live, with the excitement of being involved at the high level Jimmy is. That has its pluses and minuses. I made friends when we lived here before; I knew where the grocery store and the cleaners were. So it was easy. But eventually we'll go back to Texas."
She was a close friend of Baker's first wife, who died of cancer in 1970. Susan worked in Bush's unsuccessful Senate and presidential campaigns. She is a Catholic and a board member of Community Bible Study; Baker is a Presbyterian convert to Episcopalianism.
"My job," he said, "is to make sure that the president gets the views of all his advisors who have a right to be heard, and to make sure the president is not blind-sided."
He breakfasts every weekday morning with Meese and Michael Deaver, the other two members of the triumvirate that helps Reagan run the nation. They meet in Baker's office. At 8 a.m. he chairs the senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and then meets with the president, Meese and Deaver about 9 a.m. They take turns spending the day with the president, what they call "following the President's schedule."
Baker attends most Cabinet and all National Security Council meetings; in the afternoons he attends legislative strategy meetings with his legislative aide, Max Friedersdorf, Richard Darman, another aide, Meese, and sometimes Deaver and Dave Gergen, Reagan's communications director. Press operations is another of Baker's responsibilities. He often spends 14 straight hours in the White House, hustling from one meeting to the next. "I try not to leave until I have returned every phone call from a senator or a governor. Sometimes I don't make it, but I try."
For years Baker has been dropping whatever he was doing in Texas to accommodate powerful men. In 1975, when Commerce Secretary Rogers Morton, acting on George Bush's recommendation, asked Baker to leave his lucrative Houston law practice and come to Commerce, Baker agreed. When President Ford asked him to manage his campaign in 1976, Baker again agreed, although "I really didn't want to." And he agreed to manage his friend Bush's doubtful bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He says he took his job with Reagan "because the president asked me to."
Compared to Baker's homegrown version of noblesse oblige, Bush's aspirations seem downright crass. His posts --ambassador to China, head of the Republican National Committee during Watergate and director of the CIA --have all been intensely political. Bush and Baker make the graceful moves between bureaucracy and business that another Texan, John Connally, turned into a spectator sport during the Nixon years. But Baker sounds half-way convincing when he talks about the civic responsibility of serving his President.
The key to understanding Baker and Bush, their ambitions and successes, lies not in Washington, but in Texas. What was down home to LBJ and Rayburn--a cattle-and-cotton barony soaked with oil but still mortgage-ridden and farm poor--has become a predominantly urban state, capital-intensive and sophisticated. Houston is the fastest-growing big city in America, where urologists advertise vasectomies on billboards and the air hums-- smells--of unbridled free enterprise.
V. O. Key, author of Southern Politics, said of Texas: "A modified class politics seems to be evolving ... because of the personal insecurity of men suddenly made rich who are fearful lest they lose their wealth ... A new-rich class has arisen from the exploitation of natural resources in a gold rush atmosphere." Power, not party affiliation, was important. Democrats voted like national Republicans, and still do, with those like Baker and Connally finally coming out of the closet.
The trickle-down effect of so much money still draws approximately a thousand people a week to Houston, which has always welcomed newcomers, and new consumers. "If we suggest that they aren't natives," says a native who works for an investment bank, "they stomp our feet. And they're wearing cowboy boots and we're wearing Weejuns."
Baker and Bush are heroes to the old and the new Houston, representative of Texas roots and Texas brass--the ability to make yourself into what you want to be. Baker's fortune is symbolized by the torrid real estate market and Brobdingnagian law firms that grew up with the oil business, and with banking. Baker and Botts, which greatly expanded under "Captain" Baker, James Baker's grandfather, is now one of the dozen largest law firms in the nation. The Bakers own a healthy share of Texas Commerce Bank. A friend and former collegue characterizes the family as "moderately wealthy old Houston." Baker estimates the entire family, including his mother's assets, is worth about $7 million.
Bush's money, by comparison, was just minted. He sold oil well drilling equipment in Odessa, in west Texas, and swept out the shop himself. He and his wife, Barbara, once lived next door to a prostitute. They moved to a section of nearby Midland known as "Easter egg row" because of the garish color of the houses. They were two Yankees determined to fit in where entertaining meant "cooking something in the back yard, and drinking a little whiskey." A friend remembers Bush wearing a diaper to a New Year's Eve party, a show of exuberance highly valued in west Texas.
Bush and two other lease-hustlers, Hugh and Bill Liedtke, formed their own oil company, Bush raising his half of the million dollars in seed money with the help of a maternal uncle. They named the company Zapata, after seeing the film, "Viva Zapata," with Marlon Brando. Depending upon your view of the company, says Hugh Liedtke, "Zapata was either a patriot, or a bandit."
Today the best symbol of the Bush's good fortune are the twin black towers in downtown Houston, one named Zapata, the other Pennzoil, designed by Philip Johnson. Blond female guards in matching epaulets direct the visitor to a special elevator paneled with Russian walnut burl. Liedtke's stunning aerie has a floor of Travertine marble, a sloping glass ceiling, potted trees, a 16-foot conference table made of planks from an old San Francisco shipwreck, and shelves lined with brilliant geological specimens mined by Pennzoil's subsidiary and cleaned up for display. "All they did was squirt off the dirt," says Liedkhe, the gravel- voiced chief executive officer and chairman of the board.
Liedkhe remembers Bush in Midland as a man determined to make his own career. "He wanted to show himself he could do it. Luck was a factor, but most people make their own luck. In the oil fields, it's called the Jesus factor."
Baker never needed the Jesus factor. He was born late in his parents' marriage, and unexpectedly. His mother, who still lives in a house brimming with Louis XV furniture, says, "Jim was such a pleasure." She carries a slim cane, and graciously offers a visitor sherry in cut crystal. "His father was very strict. I don't know why. I can't remember a single instance where he or his sister ever did anything wrong."
As a child dressed in a pink linen smock, Baker sat for a portrait by a member of the French Academy. When he was 5, his father took him hunting. Baker later told his mother: "It was wonderful. I didn't have to bathe for two days." His peers were as wealthy as he; they felt no more affinity for horses and cows than their counterparts in Grosse Point, or Greenwich. They went to the same private school, and played golf; wranglers were something they saw in movies. Baker's father taught him tennis at the River Oaks Country Club; he also poured ice water over his son's head when he was late getting up.
"My father had a profound influence on my life," Baker says. "He was a strict authoritarian, and work-ethic oriented. He believed in success, in keeping your nose to the grindstone."
Baker's father also believed in what a friend calls "flat-bellied toughness." His son attended a summer camp where one of the counselors, an admired former football player from the University of Texas, was fond of horseback riding. That same counselor was occasionally seen to arch a cud of chewing tobacco against the hard blue, suburban sky.
Baker's father, an alumnus of the Hill School and Princeton, had already broken the Tex-prep trail. His son became a member of both tennis teams, but switched to rugby at Princeton because the rugby team went to Bermuda every spring. He was asked to join Ivy, the sine qua non of Princeton's eating clubs, and he majored in history.
A roommate, Barnabas McHenry, says Baker "was mischievous, but he didn't steal the hands off the clock." Baker's grades were nothing to write home about. His other roommate, Dr. David Paton, found "Bake" smart, with "good snaps." Asked if Baker had any overriding intellectual interests, Paton says: "He cared a lot about Southwest football," which in Texas is the apex of civilization, second only to the weather as a subject of learned discourse.
To avoid being drafted, Baker joined the Marines in 1952, typically choosing the most demanding service. He later enrolled in the University of Texas Law School. He was 25 years old, married, and a father, but when his father asked him to pledge a fraternity, to make valuable business contacts, Baker complied. He lived on $160 a month provided under the GI Bill; his father paid only the rent.
"He could have given me more," Baker says. "But he always said that it's easier to spend a dollar than to earn one."
Antinepotism policy at Baker and Botts prevented him from joining his father there. Instead, he joined what is now Andrews, Kurth, Campbell and Jones, another prestigious firm. The law in Houston had become very proficient in dealing with money, but lacked sophistication in some other areas. The man who hired Baker, Milton West, recalls a senior partner saying, "I don't care much about academics. Just make sure he'll stand back-to-back with me in a whorehouse fight."
Years later, after Baker had made partner, his father still treated him as his child. But Baker never held it against him: "That's just the way fathers are."
"If Jim's father had lived," says Baker's mother, "Jim would never have gone to Washington." Previous Bakers had not stooped to politics.
Baker's willingness to accept authority today goes back to that father/son relationship. "I grew up at a time when what your parents wanted you to do was the right thing. I didn't get into the vegetarians, the demonstrations, Hare Krishna and East Indian religion stuff, like Jamie did."
Jamie is James A. Baker IV, the only one of Baker's four sons to go to the Right Coast--that's Texan for the East Coast (California's the Left Coast, naturally). Jamie went to Cornell, not Princeton. He is proof of how much Houston and the Bakers have changed.
"My family's been here for five generations," said Jamie, about to leave for Nepal. "Not many people can make that claim. I hate to be the one to break the chain, but I don't want to live where the quality of life's not up to my expectations."
He plans to practice environmental law in Austin when he returns. His view of his father is affectionate, and unblinkered: "As long as I've known him, he's been almost a workaholic. I'm surprised that he's a success."
Baker's cousin, Preston Moore, says Baker was always "unflappable. He had more than plain ability." Moore's nickname is "Prep"; he wears a three- piece and a tie covered with green whales--too many green whales. "Money, and an old family name doesn't necessarily cut it in Houston," Prep adds. "You still need talent."
Baker's energy and "smooth," plus the largess of his and Bush's friends, carried Houston for Bush in his Senate race, with 61 percent of the vote. Baker converted to Republicanism shortly thereafter, and in 1972 he worked 14 Texas counties for Nixon. ("Politics gets in the blood," says his mother, with obvious distaste.)
He made his first real mark in the Ford campaign. "It was impressive," says John Sears, then candidate Reagan's campaign manager. "Baker didn't have any experience, but he quickly got a handle on the delegates. And he kept channels open."
Baker also recognized the strength of the candidate from the Left Coast. When Baker decided to run for attorney general, he sought out a Reagan man to help him, the director of Young Americans for Freedom. "Baker secretly wanted to be attorney general under Ford," says Donatelli. "We made criminal justice a plank in our campaign."
Baker and his opponent tried to out- cop each other on television, although in Texas the attorney general has precious little to do with law enforcement. "He lost, to my great pleasure," says his mother.
Lyn Nofziger, a ranking Left Coast operative, asked Baker after the race to join the Reagan team, "but he said he had a commitment to Bush, if George wanted to run in 1980."
George did. As Bush's campaign manager, Baker rejected all language and strategy that might have offended Reagan, almost as if he planned for Bush to become vice president. In New Hampshire, Bush refused to debate with the other candidates, after Reagan had agreed to do so, the beginning of the end. Baker claims they were sandbagged, that they were bound by the earlier agreement. But another campaign manager involved in the negotiations sees it differently: "George wanted a one-on-one debate, so he wouldn't look weak."
After the New Hampshire primary, Baker advised Bush to drop out. In Texas, that is called "cratering." Baker then joined the Reagan team, and managed the debate between the candidate and President Carter. "Baker knew what he wanted and he was good at getting it," says Jody Powell, adding, "he's a gentleman, in the tradition of southern politics."
Two weeks before the election, Nancy Reagan, Deaver and Stewart Spencer, a Left Coast political consultant, met in a Dallas hotel room and decided that Baker would make the best chief of staff.
Baker's influence grew steadily within the "paper loop" of top Reagan advisers who all read the same memoranda.
"He reminds me," says Gergen, "of people who made a lot of money with investments because they can make decisions quickly. He does that with government."
Darman, Baker's assistant, says, "Baker has an outstanding sense of timing. He knows when to act and, just as importantly, when not to act."
Baker has held contentious people together, sometimes dipping into a repertoire of regional dirty jokes that has become legendary at the White House. He pushed the tax cut legislation as a true believer, but he balked at the size of the defense bill. Justice Department officials suspected Baker of characterizing Attorney General William French Smith as a "somnambulist" because Smith didn't quickly articulate new policies dear to the Reaganites, such as turning their backs on civil rights and environmental laws. (Smith said playfully that he didn't know anyone at the White House could pronounce somnambulist.)
Baker traveled to Rancho del Cielo in late August to join the vacationing president. It proved to be a collision of work-ethic Texas, where people play after the chores are done, and laid- back California.
Baker expected to find that Reagan and Meese had made up their minds about the second round of budget cuts, the MX program and the B1 bomber, but they had not. Baker told some observers that Meese was indecisive, and indicated that the president and some others in the administration could work a little harder.
Baker's influence on policy is not as great as Meese's; neither is his relationship with the president the same. He could well end up fighting just to maintain his present turf. Baker, cautious of too much media attention, has tried to avoid talk shows and personal appearances. "The higher the monkey climbs," he says, "the more you see of his behind."
Nevertheless, Baker has made some mistakes. Last spring, Sen. Bob Packwood told Baker that he planned to lead opposition to AWACS, but Baker was too involved with tax legislation to heed him. "Their radar wasn't too good," says a Senate aide. Neither was their heavy-handed offer to approve a Republican senator's nominee for a U.S. attorney if the senator backed the AWACS sale. And a prominent Democratic senator says, "This administration is worse than Carter's in freezing out people who aren't part of the ideological team."
Baker and Darman came up with the idea of drafting a letter containing safeguards for the AWACS, signed by the president. "We showed them the language," Baker says, "and let them make a change. That way they have a hook they can use with their constituents, though some of the changes may be cosmetic."
Bush never got the chance to cast the deciding vote, his potential moment of glory. He remains heavily dependent, politically, upon the Jesus factor--luck. His chances of inheriting the job he most wants, based upon the actuarial tables, is 20 percent during this term, and 40 percent during a second term. Those are better odds than anyone else can claim, but Bush will have a tough time bruising his way through the the nominating process when opposed by a candidate more acceptable to the Republican right.
Asked about Baker, he displays what nowadays is rare enthusiasm: "He has drive, the can-do spirit. He's a go-getter, a hard-charger, a do-er. But he wouldn't walk over his grandmother ... To call Jim my friend is an understatement."
"We're still very close," says Baker.
On his own, Baker could go in several directions. Robert Strauss, a Texan in the old LBJ mold, says, "I haven't seen anyone in the White House better than Jim Baker since I've been following Washington politics. People in this town usually have the shelf life of a bunch of little green grapes. But he's durable."
Baker's friends say he will not remain long in his present job. Baker does not say so, but presumably he would like to be attorney general of all 50 states, and not just Texas. He could return to his Houston law firm, where he would be the numero uno "rainmaker" --Houston legalese for cultivating clients. Ben Love, president of Texas Commerce Bank, would dearly love for Baker to succeed him.
And there's always the 1986 Texas governorship, when Republican Bill Clements steps aside. Baker would have to overcome his prep-schooled, corporate-tooled antipathy to the up- front, free-wheeling, occasionally abusive elective politics that still exists, thank the good Lord, in the Gret Stet of Texas. And that would not be easy.
Asked about his future, Baker takes a lungful of White House air, and says, "I hope I'll eventually be looking back from ... a nice ranch, where I can run a few cows."
That's what all Tex-preps say.