By Tony Kornheiser, The Washington Post
BE REAL quiet in the blind, Baker said, be real still, because wild turkeys have eight times a human’s hearing and 10 times a human’s sight, and if they sense anything unusual they’ll be gone before you even see them. Smarter than hell, Baker said about turkeys, scope out a place for 30 minutes before going in. Smartest game there is.
And so quick. Better make your move in a hurry, because you’re only gonna get once chance, Baker said. They won’t be hangin’ around, posin’ for you. They’ll flat step out. All you’ll bear is the wind.
Baker shook his head respectfully. After more than 40 years ofhunting everything from deer to duck, from antelope to zebra,Baker most liked coming here to South Texas to hunt turkey. Because they’re so hard to beat.
Put on this camouflage, Baker said, handing out jackets and hats to his two guests, and here, sit on these cushions, because you have to wait for hours and the ground gets really hard. Lucky it’s not too cold, Baker said. A few hours sittin’ still in real cold will test your discipline, make you wonder if it’s worth it.
When they were sitting low enough so no turkeys could possibly see them, Baker handed over the one gun he’d brought, the 12-gauge shotgun loaded with No. 4 shot, and whispered, “Maybe they’ll come, and maybe they won’t. If they do, look for the beards. Gobblers have beards.They’re black and wiry, and they hang down from their chests like brushes. If you don’t see beards, don’t shoot — they’re hens; it’s illegal to shoot hens. But if you see beards, pick one out and aim just below the neck, then click off the safety and shoot. Don’t be nervous.”
Then, smiling, James A. Baker III, the incoming White Housechief of staff, put a pinch of Red Man chewing tobacco into his mouth, reclined so his back was resting against a tree, pulled the billof his hat down over his eyes and inhaled the gathered stillness. When he was a young boy his father taught him that the best way to hunt turkey was to lie down, kind of half go to sleep, and wait for them to come to you.
Patience, Baker said.
“More than any one thing, it’s patience.”
Since the election lots of people, many quite close to Baker, have been knocking on his door, asking for jobs. Everybody loves a winner. “The problem,” said one of Baker’s deputies who has been in that office and seen this happen, “comes in turning them down honestly and graciously. Now the ordinary politician gives you a song and dance — you don’t get from Baker. If Baker knows it’s impossible to give Fred the job because that job is too much for Fred,Baker will come straight out with it and still leave Fred his dignity. He’ll say, ‘Fred, you’re not going to get that job. Now how would you like to talk about some other job?’ And Fred leaves saying, ‘Thanks for giving it to me straight.’ So no one is left hanging. That’s an admirable quality.”
The amazing thing isn’t that Jim Baker was named chief of staff.
The job seems perfectly suited to Baker’s strengths. Ideally, thechief of staff screens access to the president, gathers information, reduces it to digestible size, then presents it to the president without bias. Ask Baker about what Baker does best and he says, “Cut through the chaff.” Ask others about Baker and the phrases you hear sound like chapter headings from How To Be A Better Bureaucart: Highly organized. Quick study. Follow through. Talented and decent. According to Rep. Dick Cheyney (R-Wyo.), who held the job under Gerald Ford, “Baker’s a classic pick. He has no ax to grind. He’ll give the president a straight shot.”
The amazing thing is that Jim Baker was named Ronald Reagan’schief of staff.
“Amazing,” Baker says, chewing on the word like a plug of tobacco. “Yes, I do find it amazing . . . considering where I was coming from.”
A Ford guy 1975, serving as Undersecretary of Commerce, first under Rogers Morton, then under Elliot Richardson, 1976, joining the Ford reelection team, first as chief delegate hunter for the nomination — beating Ronald Reagan at the convention — then as Ford’s campaign manager in the general election.
A Bush guy. His best friend and doubles partner. (“Great ground strokes, but a weak serve; Jimmy’s the Harold Solomon of the Southwest,” Bush says.) 1970, managing Bush’s Harris County (Houston) campaign for the Senate. 1979, managing Bush’s campaign for the presidential nomination against the frontrunner, Ronald Reagan.
But never, not until he joined the general election campaign in 1980 as a special assistant, never ever a Reagan guy.
“Sort of remarkable,” said Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), first a Ford guy in ’76, then a Dole guy in ’79 and finally a Reagan guy in ’80.
“Rather astounding,” said Gov. Bill Milliken (R-Mich.), a Ford guy in ’76 and a Bush guy in ’80.
“We were looking for a Sincerity Count after the election,” said a Ford guy who requested anonymity. “Naming Jimmy Bakershowed us all we needed to see.”
“In many ways he’s a good match for Reagan,” said Roger Stone, a Reagan guy in ’76 and ’80. “Reagan has a well-publicized tendency to delegate, and Baker is someone whom you can delegate things to and then go to sleep at night not worried that it will all fall through the cracks.”
Baker wears Mona Lisa’s grin as he listens.He is in the front seat ofhis Chevy Suburban van driving the 200-plus miles southwest from Houston to Sabinal, to the ranch belonging to his wife’s former father-in-law where the family likes to gather each New Year’s. JimBaker was a widower with four sons when he married a longtime friend, Susan Winston, a widow with three kids of her own. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Mary Bonner, and it is Mary Bonner, who now lies sleeping in Susan’s arms in the back seat, who comes first in their lives. In the world according to Jim Baker, everything stops for Mary Bonner. “We’d be having campaign strategy meetings,” said Susan Morrison, the deputy press secretary during the Bush primary campaign, “and right in the middle Jimmy would pull out picturesof Mary Bonner to show us.”
Right now nothing could be righter with Jim Baker. He’s looking into a Duraflame sunset, searching out geese making their arrowhead patterns in the sky. He has his wife and child with him, his guns in the back, his spit cup by his side, and he is going to a place where for five days he can hunt and he won’t have to shave. It may be the last chance he gets to do this for four years, and he knows it.
“Nobody was as shocked as I was,” he says about his appointment. “Ask Susan, she’ll tell you. Shocked. Surprised . . .”
From the back seat Susan selects another word.
“Dismayed,” she says.
After a sapphire sunrise the sky had turned gray. The land was the color of fog. Overhead, Baker pointed out cranes, Sandhills. Their wings, as they approached, sounded like helicopter propellers.
You could get the turkeys in their roosts, Baker said, go down to the live oaks where they nest, sneak up on them in their sleep and fire away. Any fool could shoot a turkey that way. But that’s not sport, that’s murder. Not that waiting by a feeder was anything near as tough as stalking them, but you still had to be lucky, even if you knew how to read the signs.
His father had started him off on ducks 44 years ago, when he was 6, had thought it was a good way to relax and spend time together. That’s where we had our real visits, Baker said, that’s where I got to know him. Like his great-grandfather, the Judge, who co-foundedBaker & Botts in 1862, his grandfather and his father were attorneys. All the James A. Bakers worked hard. It seemed to be in the blood.
Took my sons hunting too, Baker said, started them off early. Each one of them reached a point where they quit it. Partly a stage,Baker said, and partly because I was so turned on to it. I wasn’t as good a father as I wanted to be. I think I worked too hard at my job. Two oldest are coming back to it now. You know, to hunting, Bakersaid, pleased.
Used to be real competitive hunting, Baker said. Used to want the biggest buck. No longer. I couln’t care less. The killing isn’t a thrill anymore. bNow, I go to relax, to listen to nature, to see the sun rise and set, to sleep. I get away in the stillness. Get my chance to sit and think.
Must be making too much noise, Baker said, watching as some grazing cows came closer and stared into the blind. May be sayin’ something about how good we are, Baker said, laughing.
Shhhh, Baker said, quiet now.
Don’t move, Baker whispered.
The three of them dared not even twitch. Baker seemed to funnel all five senses into his ear as he listened to sounds the others were incapable of hearing.
Turkeys, Baker whispered.Don’t move.
To the left of the blind, turkeys. Coming down the path like commuters. Ten, 15, 20 of them, their feathers blending in with the brown and gray of the brush.
Turkeys, coming into the feeder area. Turkeys, some of them flying up on the feeder, scratching at the corn, sending it down to the others.
Turkeys, all over. Must be 25, 30 of them.
Look for the beards, Baker whispered.
Afraid to even look up, the guest with the gun felt a coldness gathering in the base of his spins.Both hands were on the shotgun, but neither near the trigger. He wasn’t ready to make his move.
Hens, Baker whispered. No beards. None of them.
On the feeder one of the turkeys slapped her wings against the metal can that held the corn. The noise frightened the others. There was a furious fluttering, and the turkeys began running away. Flat stepping out. The guests raised their heads in time to see the dash.
Hens, Baker said. Too bad, no way you could have missed. Might as well go back for lunch now, Baker said, they won’t be coming back.
The guest with the gun exhaled. After what seemed like an hour.
Are you sure they were hens? He wanted to know. Are you sure they weren’t transvestite gobblers trying to fool us?
Well, Baker said, at least you saw some. He reached for the Red Man. Didn’t mean to hoggin’ it all, Baker said. Anybody want some?
Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1980.
Baker was in his room in Washington when the president-elect called.
Reagan: “I know you have to get back to Texas tomorrow, but there’s something I’d like to talk to you about. I’d like to do it in the morning.”
Baker: “Fine. What time do you want me to come by?”
Reagan: “I’ll come down and meet you. Your room okay?”
Baker: “I guess so.”
Baker is telling the story on the drive to Sabinal, and when he gets to the punch line he looks back at his wife, and say, “Whereupon, Susan burst into tears.”
Something like a wink is coming from the front seat.
Something like a burn is meeting it from the back.
“Let me explain,” Susan says. “I saw they were recognizing Jimmy’s ability more and more during the campaign, especially after the way he handled the debates, and I thought he might be offered a job in the administration. But the chief of staff job is so demanding. I was afraid of it. We’d been married 7 1/2 years, and we’d just about settled in mixing the families. With the bush campaign and then the Reagan campaign, well, it was like a whirlwind. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it, but it was wearying. I wanted to see more of my man. I wanted him to see more of his children . . .” w
“. . . She said, ‘They’ll obviously ask you to do something if they win, and I’m willing to go back to Washington with you, but that job . . .”
“. . . it can be a horrible job . . .”
“. . . what she’s talking about is the hours . . .”
“. . . what I’m also talking about, honey, is the fact that you guard the door, and anybody who guards the door gets speared alot . . .”
Baker lived up to his reputation and shot straight. He was flattered. It was “a very challenging and very important job.” But he told Reagan he needed some time to think about it, and told him ofSusan’s reservations.
That afternoon, after his first post-election press conference, Reagan walked over to Susan like a basketball coach recruiting a blue-chipper by charming the mama and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t let your husband spend 14 hours working every day.” Susan Baker was butter on hot pancakes. Almost two months later, just thinking about how Reagan spoke to her makes her say, “I’d follow him to the moon.”
Then, Baker went to work on what remained. He called Ed Meese, who had been named to the other major advisory White House position, counselor to the president. “We had extensive conversations,” Baker said. “I wanted to be sure Ed and I could work it out.” Five days later Baker called Reagan and accepted.
As the van rolls on into the Texas sunset, Baker listens carefully to the suggestion that Reagan guys have made, that the media shouldn’t get carried away with the appointment, that Baker is just there for administration, not policy, that Meese alone has Reagan’sear, that Meese is the main man. And for the first time since Houston, 80 miles ago, there is, behind the silver-rimmed glasses, a hard glint in Baker’s eyes, a rough edge in Baker’s voice.
“First and foremost a chief of staff has to be an honest broker,”Baker says, without a trace of his customary soft twang. “My job is to make the train run, and I go in disclaiming any intentions offormulating policy because you can’t be an honest broker and push policy. But part of my job is also to cover the political side of the White House on the Hill for the president, and to implement policy jointly with Ed Meese.”
There are geese on the right flying across the syk; he doesn’t even notice.
“You cannot separate politics and policy,” he says.
A battalion of geese.
“I’m appointed to the National Security Council. I will attend all policy meetings as a principal. I will be a member of the Super Cabinet if there is one.”
All over, geese.
“All these things have been agreed to. In fact, Ed and I have a pieceof paper where I wrote these things down, and we initialed it. I don’t plan on releasing our memorandum, but it’s all there, and we’re all agreed to it, including the president-elect. I know that most policy decisions are made in that Oval Office with two or three people sitting around, and I’m going to be one of those people. The fact ofthe matter is that it’s going to be Mike Deaver, Ed Meese and myself.”
He rolls the chaw over in his mouth.
Off to the left something catches his eye, and he looks toward it.
“Geese,” he says. “Look at all those geese.”
By noon the sun had burned off the haze, and after lunch the only reasonable thing to do was sit in the back and spend some time cultivating a tan. The Winston spread is fancier than Baker’s own spread in Pearsall, about 50 miles to the South. The Winston spread has permanence, a modern ranchhouse, a pool, screened porches. In Pearsall, Baker puts up a new tent when the old one rots. No electricity. No running water. No phone.
Susan Morrison said that when Baker went to Pearsall to hunt he was flat unreachable. “The nearest phone is 45 minutes away,” she said. “We’d have a crisis we thought had to be solved, but by the time we got Baker on the phone we’d solved it ourselves. That’s his style, making you do more than you think you can. But let me say this, he never went to the ranch in a crunch. When you really needed him, he was there.”
Damn, Baker said, look at that.
He had the binoculars up to his face and he had them trained on a feeder about 200 years from the back porch.
Gobblers, Baker said. Just look at them on that feeder laughing at us. Can you see the beards? See how red the heads are compared to the hens? You spend the whole morning hunting and don’t see a one, then you come in for lunch and they’re out there just laughing at you.
Look at them, Baker said.
I don’t know, Baker said. I mean this sun is so nice, but hell, we came out here to get some turkey, didn’t we? Got this splinter in my hand. Susan? Susan, honey? You know I can’t stand pain. Take this splinter out, please. Be gentle. Then — ouch, be gentle, honey. What do you say? You want to stay here in the sun or ease on down?
Just can’t stand to see them laughin’ at us, Baker said.
Jimmy Baker wasn’t groomed for politics; he was groomed for the law, “made conscious of the fact that I sort of had a heritage to live up to.” (Although his birth certificate says III, he is actually the fourth.The original James A. had died before Jimmy’s father was born. “My father always referred to himself as Jr. and I didn’t use III until after I got out of the Marine Corps. I sort of thought it sounded sissified.”) Regardless of numbers, the James A. Bakerlineage was a Houston legal aristocracy that stressed success through achievement; they were grinders who left nothing to chance.
Though an anti-nepotism rule would prevent him from joiningBaker & Botts, the best law firm in Houston, Jimmy Baker would surely practice law there at a top firm. Like his father, he was sent to prep at the Hill School in Pennsylvania and then to Princeton. After a couple of years in the Corps, his father insisted he study law at the University of Texas. “You’ve been gone 10 years, Jimmy,” his father said. “It’s time to come back here and go to school with the people you’re going to practice with.” cAt 25, married and with a son,Baker was instructed to pledge an undergraduate fraternity at UT — Phi Delta Theta — “to establish some good contacts,” his father told him.
His grandfather, the Captain, who really built up Baker & Botts, postulated the Baker philosophy to a reporter one day in the 1930s. When asked the secret to becoming a successful lawyer, the Captain said, “Study hard. Work hard. And stay out of politics.” The Bakersperceived politics as “just a little bit shady.” And until 1970, when George Bush persuaded him to manage his Harris County campaign for the Senate Jimmy Baker was, by his own account, “totally apolitical.” Nominally, he was a Democrat, like all the Bakers, but Barbara Bush still jokes that “Jimmy’s was one vote we never worried about. He always spent Election Day hunting.”
After managing Bush to 61 percent of the vote in Houston (Bush got 46 percent statewide), Baker became “absolutely, totally, pure Republican.” And once he made the commitment, he began, as aBaker-watcher said, “to bubble up.” Two years later he ran 14 Texas counties for Richard Nixon, and later he served as the state’s Republican finance chairman. It was Bush who recommendedBaker to Rogers Morton for a job in the Ford administration, and when Baker got the call to go to Commerce — a job tailor-made for a corporate lawyer — he felt he’d done enough in Houston and he was ready for Washington; he was feeling better about politics. Not good, but better.
Delegate hunting for Ford came next. Starting off, by his own admission, “green-ass,” he took over a dying nomination campaign that had lost five straight primaries, resuscitated it and directed it to victory. John Sears, his counterpart in the Reagan camp, said what impressed him most about Baker’s performance was “how quickly he picked it up.” Like they say in show biz, Kid, you may be going out there a schlepper, but you’re coming back a star.
Unfortunately, he hated every minute of it. It made him feel stained. “You’d have to go to pols of the lowest rank and beg. I had a guy ask me for $5,000 for his vote. I’d take people into the Oval Office to meet the president, and they’d lecture him on what he was doing wrong. It was so demeaning.”
Why take the job?
“Because the president asked me.”
He went on to manage the general election — bubbling up — and when Ford came from 30 points down and lost by only 1, Bakerbegan to see politics as a noble cause. “People say — ‘you were bitten by the bug’ — and I say, ‘Yes.’ I went back to practice law, but it didn’t hold the same fascination for me anymore.”
In 1978, he ran for Texas attorney general. Baker’s campaign was managed by Frank Donatelli, former executive director of Young Americans for Freedom. Helped by his national contacts from the Ford campaign, Baker was able to raise $1.5 million for the attorney general race, but much of the money came from wealthy Texans, big oil Texans. “Some of these guys would come in and be willing to give us money, but they wanted Jimmy to go somewhere for them, you know, like to their granddaughter’s communion,” Donatelli said. “I couldn’t say no to them, but Jimmy could. In a nice, honest,straightforward way, Jimmy would say no, and they’d understand and we’d still get the money. It’s like he had a velvet hammer. Hell, if he’d done it their way he’d have spent the whole campaign going to communions.”
Bush, Ford, Bill Simon, Jack Kemp, John Connally and Ronald Reagan all came to Texas to campaign for him. (Sources say thatBaker was offered a spot in the Reagan campaign at that time.Baker refuses comment on that.) Baker lost the race, to Mark White, but got 46 percent of the vote, the highest total ever for a Republican below the first line on the statewide ticket. “No Republican is going to beat a conservative Democrat statewide,”Baker said. “I’d geared my whole campaign to running against Price Daniel Jr., a liberal. White beat him in the primary.”
“We did our crying primary night,” Susan Baker said.
His race behind him, Baker agreed to manage Bush’s campaign for the presidential nomination. “He’s very interested in being involved in the action; he’s ambitious,” Donatelli said. “I don’t know how much he would have liked being attorney general in Austin when the big action was going on in the presidency.”
Once again, up against Reagan.
“You can be adversaries without being enemies,” Baker said.
He smiled when he said that.
Let’s take the jeep, Baker said, I’ve got a hunch we can get to a feeder where the gobblers might go next.
Turkeys are creatures of habit, Baker said, sometimes you can anticipate them.
He would know about habits. The cigars. Ever night after dinner his one and only. “The last of the nickel cigars,” said David Keene, who was Bush’s political director. “I complained to him once — a guywith your money ought to buy a good one.” Every night during the Reagan-Carter campaign eating at the same restaurant in Alexandria. Every night eating the same food: kidney pie. Every casual stop in the attorney general campaign wearing the same uniform, the boots, the tan pants, the forest green shirt his campaign staff finally threatened to burn. The compulsive note-taking. He would know about habits.
We’ll take some laurel with us, Baker said, so we can build up the blind a little. We can talk on the ride over.
Reagan? He doesn’t hunt; he gets exercise chopping wood and riding. Carter? Fishing — and feeding off killer rabbits, Baker said, laughing.
No, not even every Texan hunts, Baker said, and there are some who do who won’t hunt certain things. I won’t shoot anything endangered. Tell you a story, Baker said. I was in Africa once; Susan and I went on our honeymoon.Paid $250 for a hunting license in Botswana and went out for an elephant. Got within 50 yards ofone. He just stood there. I could see that the ivory in the tusks alone was worth a lot more than what I paid for the license. Had him right in my sights, and I couldn’t pull the trigger. He was too beautiful.
He got to the feeder and saw gobblers already there. The noise of the jeep sent them scattering. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel.
Son-of-a-B, if they didn’t beat us here, Baker said.
“Baker’s a good thing for us,” said Dick Richards, a Reagan guy. “I don’t know what he believes in, and I don’t care. What I know is that in primaries he never embarrassed us. He never said anything he’d have to eat.”
There were five words, Baker told the Bush staff, he never wanted to hear said about Reagan. Not from any of them. Not from Bush.
He doesn’t remember the other two, but three of them were Jingoistic. Extremist. Irresponsible.
“You don’t needlessly split the party or needlessly antagonize the likely nominee,” Baker said.
Looking back, Baker doesn’t think The Dorian Gray TV Ad could have beaten Reagan in Florida, but even if it would have it was gone. It had a picture of Jimmy Carter on screen and an announcer talking about a former governor with no national experience who couldn’t get the job done. And as the announcer got to the line about “not making the same mistake again” the picture of Carter dissolved into a picture of Reagan. Baker called it “dynamite.” He pulled it before it ever ran.
“It was a very good negative ad,” Baker said. “But if we’d run it, I can promise you George Bush would never have been put on the ticket.”
So Bush was running for second place?
“No, He never was,” Baker said. “But what I’ll admit to — and what George Bush will never admit to — is that at least in my mind it was always a fallback, always a possibility. Bush was never really the front-runner in New Hampshire, not even after Iowa. We had expectations we could never live up to. Reagan had been out there since 1966 and no one was going to beat him in the West and South. We’d have had to beat him in New Hampshire and Florida to get even, and New Hampshire cost us Florida.”
Then the turning point was New Hampshire?
And the turning point in New Hampshire was the debate?
“The debate, yes, and going home the last two days before the vote.”
What happened in the debate?
“We got beaten fair and square tactically — no question about it.Reagan’s idea was the two-man debate. We accepted. Reagan ultimately responded to the heat from the other candidates. They never told us they were dealing with the others. It may be that all along . . . well, let me give them the benefit of the doubt. We had an hour to change our minds before the debate. What we should have done is said, ‘C’mon in, fellas.’ We underestimated the political impact. Some of us saw some danger, but we’d cut a deal and signed it. George felt strongly that he’d given his word. They got a hell of a ride out of it. We left there with five candidates trashing us. It was costly.”
You got sandbagged?
Before the June primary in California, Bush dropped out. Some Bushstaffers maintain that Bush didn’t jump out as much as he was pushed by Baker. Baker’s history is to be decisional. Gentlemanly in his decisions, always hearing the other side out, but decisional. He knew the finances. “He’s great with numbers,” said David Keene. “Part of his brain has an accountant’s mentality.” He knew the odds.Ultimately, he decided he knew the score.
“I’m absolutely, totally, thoroughly and completely convinced that we got out at the right time, that we stayed just long enough, and not too long — and if we’d stayed any longer, he wouldn’t be on the ticket.”
But not everyone on the Bush team was convinced. It is said that Barbara Bush wanted to go on. And while Susan Morrison didn’t dispute Baker’s decision, she was hurt by the coldness of it. “Jimmy wasn’t on the road with us all the time,” she said. “He looked at it more disappointingly than the rest of us. His lack ofpassion we didn’t want to hear. We wanted him to bleed a little.”
Bush, however, agreed.
Bush trusted Jimmy Baker. Always has.
“He’ll tell it like it is,” Bush said. “Total integrity. A lot of my friends won’t do it with me.”
If the Nashua debate is the albatross around Baker’s neck, he wears it well. At the Gridiron dinner in Washington, Baker told the audience, “The Carter people wanted me to handle the debate withReagan. Yeah, they called and said, “We watched you in New Hampshire. We liked your style.”
The last laugh, of course, belongs to Baker.
He turned down a minor Reagan staff position after Bush dropped, but accepted a special assistant’s position during the election campaign. Though some junior Bush staffers saw this as the payoff for having cut a primary deal with Reagan, Baker says no such deal was ever made. In fact, he says, Bush was “extremely anxious” for him to participate in the general election campaign. And he did handle the debates for Reagan. With John Anderson first, and thenwith Carter. Bubbled right up after that.
“I know Reagan wipes people out in debates. All comers. I knew that there were people on the fence about Reagan, people who’d heard he was a bomb-thrower; the only way to overcome that impression was to get him on television. The Anderson decision was risky; Anderson is a good debater. But forensic debate is different than political debate. And we stopped our slide after that one. I knew Reagan would show better than Carter. Reagan never loses a debate.”
Try the next feeder, Baker said, gotta get you at least a shot.
He had the gun on the front seat and the chaw in his mouth. He seemed so natural in the setting, blending in completely, like the camouflage he carried wasn’t just for his body, but also his soul. It’s a strange mix, Princeton and Houston. Enables his to walk two lines at the same time. To sip martinis at Sans Souci and chug Pearl in a jeep; to wear monogrammed — JAB III — shirts to the office and boots to the blind; to live on Foxhall Road in Washington and in a tent in Pearsall; to get along with Harvard’s Elliot Richardson in Commerce and tell Yale, Connecticut and Houston’s George Bush, “Stop saying — ‘My father inculcated in me a sense of public service.’ George, when you say ‘inculcated’ it sounds like a damn surgical procedure”; to change up on his fastball; to take a limo and drive a truck; to stay clean and get dirty.
Javalinas, Baker said.
Short, squat animals, with heads about four times too large for their bodies. Cousin to the wild hog. Ugly. Smelly, too.
You believe that people buy licenses to shoot them, Baker said. They’re almost blind. No sport in that.
He made chomping sounds at them, pig sounds. They didn’t move. They stayed at the feeder, eating the corn that had spilled down to the ground.
Won’t leave till they’ve eaten all the corn, Baker said.
Takes a while, Baker said, I’m going to sleep.
“Everybody likes him,” said Alan Baron of the political newsletter, The Baron Report. “Maybe that’s your story.”
Maybe it is. Baker sees himself as a true conservative, a Reagan conservative on economics and over-regulation by big government. During the Ford campaign, Bill Simon suggested that he and Bakerwere the only true conservatives near Ford. But Baker also sees himself as closer philosophically to Ford than to Reagan on social issues. It’s a marbleization that casts Baker as the Republican Triboro Bridge, spanning all the troubled waters. No matter where they stand, Republicans see themselves standing near Baker.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.): “He’s one of the most impressive men I’ve seen in the political arena. Philosophically, he and Reagan are completely in tune, but Baker does it in such a way that even the liberals will be comfortable. And that’s needed.”
Terry Dolan (NICPAC): “I was of the impression he was a Ford hack. In fact, he’s more of a Reaganite than most people around Reagan.”
Dick Richards, self-confessed Reagan ideologue: “Baker’s long suit is that he’s smart, a realist, a man you can do business with.”
Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.): “He’s not trying to soap anyone.”
Gov. Bill Milliken (R-Mich.): “It’s encouraging to see Ronald Reagan pick a man like Jim Baker. I feel very reassured.”
Elliot Richardson: “I’ve known there were times when Baker had three or four secretaries hovering around him with papers to sign, when there were 50 or 60 phone calls backed up, and yet, when you got him on the phone, he made it seem like he had all the time in the world. Washington tends to be cynical to think this kind of person can’t be real. But he is.”
Somewhere, someone is supposed to hate him. At least dislike him.
“You’ve got to find some dirt somewhere,” Susan Baker was saying as the van took the off-ramp and headed toward San Antonio and dinner. “He’s going to be hard as hell to live with after this.”
Jimmy and Susan Baker wanted to eat Mexican food. Good, fast, Mex.
Twice, Baker had asked for a menu, and finally the waiter came over without one and said it was a seven-course, price-fixed dinner.
It wasn’t the money; it was the time and the pretension.
Jimmy looked at Susan with coffee shop in his eyes, and she shook her head, yes.
Getting up from the table, Baker said, “Cut through the chaff,” and giggled.
Baker was lying on his back in the blind. Asleep.
One of the guests held a camera, and the other held the gun. They were watching the javalinas feed on the corn, listening to them chomp away. All the guests hear was chomping and snoring.
Don’t move, Baker whispered, suddenly upright and wide awake.
Turkeys, Baker whispered, don’t move.
They came into the feeder and mixed in with the javalinas.
Look for beards, Baker said. If you see one, pick out a spot below his neck and make your move.
The guest with the gun looked for beards and raised the gun to his shoulder.
This time he would be ready. He felt that familiar coldness filling the small of his back, and he tried to will it away; he concentrated on keeping his body from shivering. He trained the sight of the gun on the rim of the feeder. If something with a beard flew up there into his line — even if that something was Abraham Lincoln — that something was shot.
Hens, Baker whispered, every dang one of them hens.
Be ready, Baker whispered, you never know.
And sure enough, as the hens began to run off the javalinas, gobblers came in and ran off the hens.
Three of them, Baker whispered.
Uh-oh, something’s spooked them, Baker whispered. No panic.Still whispering, make your move.
The lead gobbler started to fly, and the guest moved the gun rightwith the turkey, sweeping left to right in the Texas sky, pulling back on the safety and jerking the trigger at the same time.
Instead of pushing the safety in, he was pulling it back.
The lead gobbler was still within range when the guest put the gun down in shame and disgust.
Baker made his move swiftly. Grabbing the gun from the ground, he released the safety and went to one knee, wheeling the gun over the head of the startled guest. The gobbler in flight was gone, as was one of the runners. But the third bird, the straggler, was stillwithin range. The sound of the shotgun being fired was a thunderclap in the late afternoon.
Sorry, Baker said.
You just couldn’t click the safety, Baker said. It happens to everyone. It’s happened to me.
Twenty yards away the gobbler rose from the brush, flapping its wings wildly, instinctively, trying to fly. A few seconds later it fell dead.
The guests had no idea what to do. They watched as Baker rushed to the site where the bird dropped, then followed. By the time they got there Baker was holding the turkey upside-down by its feet. Blood dripped slowly from a hole at the base of its head. One shot. Clean. b
Deader than a hammer, Baker said.
It was big, maybe 18 pounds. Baker offered it to each of his guests, and each held it, oblivious at first to the blood which dripped from the bird onto their pants. Still warm. As if in a ritual they plucked feathers from the bird and held them against the light to see their irridescence. Finally they noticed the blood. They did not wipe it off. They did not think they should yet.
See that, Baker said, holding the turkey’s mouth open, piece ofcorn.
It had been one hell of a performance, a guest said to Baker. Like in the trenches. Like in a foxhole. Heroic. One, clean shot. Flat out heroic.
Marine Corps, Baker said. Spent eight months on the Marine rifle team. All day for eight months, just shooting. Achieved Expert status, Baker said gently. Had a lot of practice.
You just couldn’t get the safety, Baker said. Happens to everyone. Maybe we can go out tomorrow, Baker said, love to see you get a shot.
The next day they had dressed the bird, and it was hanging outside, its head and feathers dumped in a trough, its yellow skin reflecting the sun. It was a fatty bird, and they said it would make prime eating.
The guest took their word. He couldn’t stay.
He asked casually, reflexively, if there was anything he could do.
“Do you really want to know what you can do for me?” Susan Bakerasked.
She was on the front steps, watching her husband walk to the van. That jaunty step of his making his shadow dance.
“You can pray for him,” she said. “You can pray that Jimmy Baker can do this terribly difficult job. Every day you can say a prayer for him and all of us.”