James Baker’s 7 Rules for Running Washington

Sometimes, more aggressive strategies of press management were required. In 1990, treacherous weather nearly derailed a superpower summit with the Soviets, which had been set to take place aboard ships in Malta. When the logistics debacle threatened to become the narrative, Baker, by then the secretary of state, told Tutwiler to immediately feed the media horde a distraction: 17 new proposals President Bush had brought to the meeting to roll out for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and which they had not planned to release until the end of the summit. “Dump!” he yelled into the phone, and she did.

3. If Dick Cheney (or anyone else) gets in your lane, run over him “with all possible alacrity.”

Collegiality only goes so far in the upper reaches of the Cabinet, any Cabinet. The first Bush administration had an unusually collaborative national security team, especially compared with its predecessors. But in a town where the perception of power often translated into power itself, Baker was still determined to maintain his prerogatives as secretary of state, especially in public. In the spring of Bush’s first year in office, amid a pause to re-examine policy toward the Soviet Union and its reformist young leader Gorbachev, Baker was furious when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on CNN and expressed doubts about Gorbachev’s chances of success. The Bush team was betting that Gorbachev’s reforms were for real, and, besides, foreign policy was Baker’s lane. While Cheney had been a friend of Baker’s for two decades and had helped make his Washington career by securing his promotion during the Ford administration, he had no business speaking out on diplomatic issues.

“Cheney, you’re off the reservation,” Cheney told us Baker said when the aggravated secretary of state called.

“I got it,” Cheney said. “Won’t happen again.”

But Baker was not done. He wanted to make sure Cheney’s view would not represent the administration’s position. He called the president as well as Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, and told them the White House should distance itself from Cheney’s remarks. “Dump on Dick with all possible alacrity,” Baker told Scowcroft. The White House did just that. Cheney learned his lesson.

4. Never let ’em see you pee.

Baker’s relentlessness was one of the reasons for his success as a diplomat — that, and an iron bladder. He would need both in dealing with the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. Assad was famously obstreperous, but Baker was determined to translate victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq into a genuine opening for a broader Middle East peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. To start, that meant holding an unprecedented peace conference in Madrid at which the Arabs, including the Palestinians, would actually sit down collectively with an Israeli delegation in public for the first time. Which meant Baker needed Assad to agree.