"Tell me, Mr. Baker, did you know that your campaign commercial about Boston's harbor misrepresented the situation there?"
That question will probably not be asked of James A. Baker III when he comes before the Senate to be confirmed as secretary of state. Instead, we can expect questions on foreign policy exotica and, in general, a bath of praise for a man who embodies the highest of all Washington virtues -- pragmatism.
That prediction is based on the reaction here when George Bush announced the Baker appointment. Not since it was agreed that lead could be turned into gold has there been such consensus on a single subject: Jim Baker is one terrific guy. The press said so and politicians from all over town chimed in -- a madrigal of praise for the nearly sainted Baker.
But what of the campaign? Is this not the same James Baker who as George Bush's campaign manager was responsible for the odious Pledge of Allegiance flap, the awful Willie Horton commercials, the one about "the Dukakis furlough program" (actually instituted by Republican Gov. Francis Sargent) and, of course, the misleading ad about Boston harbor? It's no pristine body of water, to be sure, but it's not -- as the Bush campaign suggested in its ad -- radioactive, either. First, Dukakis did try to clean up the harbor, and second, the "Danger Radiation Hazard No Swimming" sign shown in the commercial was filmed at a Navy yard where nuclear submarines were once repaired.
The Bush campaign, speaking through Bush himself, claimed its negative ads were a justified counter-attack, a response to the "Where was George?" refrain of the July Democratic National Convention. But the negative ad strategy had really been set back in May by, among others, Baker. What do you call that response? Whatever it is, it ain't the truth.
Jim Baker is admired in this town -- and for good reason. He is a professional politician. He is a pragmatist in a city that values performance and can hardly wait until the last Reagan ideologue is either out of town or barricaded in the Heritage Foundation. He was a valuable and important White House aide, an island of rationality in a churning sea of right-wing ideology. As Treasury secretary, Baker has earned high marks and his manner, not to mention his accessibility, has endeared him to the press. Not since Robert Strauss has anyone managed the press better.
But so much of the last campaign was about character. For a time, reporters and private eyes seemed to be in the same business. Gary Hart was forced out of the presidential race because a woman not his wife had spent a night in a house that was not her home. The story was published, and in explanation, the press intoned that a man who cheated on his wife might cheat on the country. Only history and experience say otherwise.
But what of a man who directed a campaign that many considered smarmy and may have changed the tone of presidential campaigns forever? What does this say of him? Why is it presumed that someone who waged that sort of campaign would not have learned a lesson: what worked in the campaign would work in government. Why do we think that a man who ran a campaign as Caesar will, upon taking office, become Caesar's wife?
The Reagan administration gave us examples of high officials being downright disingenuous and sometimes lying outright -- both to the people and Congress. Remember Iran-contra? On a more trivial level, the administration now admits that a host of politically unpopular decisions were delayed until after the election, such as sending out foreclosure notices to 80,000 farmers. That's understandable -- but that was not the explanation offered at the time. The programs were not ready, we were told. In other words, a lie.
If I were in the Senate, I would vote to confirm Baker. (Yeah, I like him, too.) But I would like to ask him whether he is going to do in government what he did during the campaign. I would like to know exactly what he thinks of truth, whether it is an obligation the government owes the governed or whether its use depends on its political utility. I would like to know whether he recognizes a lie, and whether he believes in something called A Larger Truth -- one concocted of little lies: Boston's harbor is polluted, so why not show it as a radiation hazard as well?
Of course, nothing like that will happen. Baker probably will not be asked to account for his management of the Bush campaign. No senator will ask, the press will not demand and the people will be otherwise occupied. Whatever Baker did will be forgiven. The ethic of Washington holds that Baker has been purged of his sins. After all, he won.