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by Barbara Lerner


On Aug23, the Monday after the Republican Convention, James Baker 3rd will be back in the White House again, taking up his old duties as chief of staff, and taking charge of George Bush's faltering re-election campaign once again. As always, Baker's timing is exquisite: Bush will get a post-convention bounce; Baker will get the credit.

Credits aside, can James 3rd's return really turn the Republican Party's winter of discontent into glorious summer again? Many journalists are primed to believe it, and with Bush still down in the polls, the Republicans themselves are desparate enough to pin what is left of their hopes for the fall election on Baker, even though he is one of the most hated men in the party.

Baker evokes Republican hatred for the same reason he raises Republican hopes: because of his unique and disturbing relationship with the press. Skill in manipulating the media is Baker's only genuine accomplishment, but it is a truly awesome one, unrivaled in American politics, and it manifests itself in two main ways.

Manifestation one is that few other men in public life have been so stunningly sucessful in avoiding responsibility for the disasters that took place on his watch. Baker was the only high Reagan administration official to escape blame for the Iran-Contra scandal, even though he was chief of staff when illegal aid to the Contras began. He was secretary of the treasury when the savings-and-loan debacle took place, but left before it was exposed. The promise-breaking tax increase that may yet cost Bush the election was engineered by Baker's protege, Richard Darman.

Manifestation two is even more impressive. No other man in Anglo-American history with the possible exception of Richard III has shown such consummate skill in wielding the stiletto against his opponents. Likenesses notwithstanding, James 3d is a thoroughly modern man. He does his back-stabbing through the press, and reporters who are privy to his off-the-record back-grounders and leaks are always careful to wipe his fingerprints off the knife. His power to control access to the information they need is too great for them to do otherwise, and besides, the dirt he dishes out is just too delicious to pass up.

With Gorba-mania in full swing in the Western press as in the Bush White House, it was easy for Baker to keep smearing Gorbachev's rival -- the only real hope pro-democracy Russians had -- as a drunken buffoon, at least until August 1991. Boris Yeltsin's undeniable courage in facing down the tanks of the coup-plotters Gorbachev appointed finally laid that spin to rest.

Dan Quayle has not been as lucky. He has yet to live down the expertly managed introduction he got in the campaign of 1988 -- as a half-baked, half-wit reactionary. Baker was Bush's campaign czar then, too, but for once Bush defied his advice, choosing Quayle as his vice president over Baker's vehement objections. As always, Baker got even. As Marilyn Quayle pungently noted, it was easy, because there was no countervailing national image of her husband.

Quayle was enormously popular with the activist Republican right, but largely unknown to ordinary voters outside his native state. Introduced on the national stage as an idiot and saddled with a job that has always been the butt of jokes, Quayle has not been able to shake off that introduction. It sticks like glue, even though it is only half-true. Quayle is a reactionary, in some ways, but the dunce cap really doesn't fit.

OK, Baker's many press friends will say, our man is slippery, you wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley, but he is a statesman, after all; look how well he served us in the Middle East. Look again.

This is a man who simply does not learn. He had, at the very least, a front row seat on the greatest political calamity of Ronald Reagan's presidency -- his futile attempt to appease an Iranian tyrant [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini1], and the only lesson Baker learned was to pick a different tyrant. Saddam Hussein was his choice, and when that proved disastrous, he found a third disaster-in-waiting to appease: Syria's Hafez Assad.

Baker's fabled reputation as a coalition-builder rests heavily on his success in getting Assad to join the Gulf War coalition. Some trick. Hussein has long been Assad's arch enemy, and the collapse of the Soviet Union had just deprived Assad of his main arms supplier. We could have made him pay to join us. Instead we gave him a cynical, senseless and deadly bribe, winking at his annexation of Lebanon, turning a blind eye to the terrorist networks he controls and letting him export Bekka Valley opium with impunity.

Ah, but what of Baker's crowning achievement, the vaunted Middle East peace conference? What of it indeed. It is a typical Baker ploy. He bullied and humiliated Israel, an ally made defenseless by her need for loan guarantees to cope with an enormous influx of Russian and Ethiopian refugees, forcing her to agree to a policy of "ethnic cleansing" on the West Bank, keeping large parts of it Jew-free to appease Arab rejectionists. That was the easy part. Now comes the hard part -- getting the Arab side to make enough concessions to offer Israel something better than an obvious suicide pact -- and where is Baker?

As always that's his cue to split, and he did. His plan is to concoct something that looks like a vision, use it to make Bush president one more time, and then succeed him. It won't work, even if Bush is re-elected.

The American people do want a vision, but they also want a president with a heart. James Baker doesn't have one, and it shows.

1. Reagan tried to appease Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the clerical fanatic who deposed the Shah, a friend to both America & Israel, after Jimmy Carter not only refused to support the Shah when he was under attack, but joined the jackals in condemning him for human rights violations that were trivial in comparison to those of every other Middle Eastern despot, before & since.

Barbara Lerner is a freelance writer, based in Chicago. She has been writing about American security, Middle East politics and Israeli political personalities for a variety of publications since 1992. Contact her at

This article was written during George Bush the 1st's presidency and was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer August 21, 1992.


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