Ronald Reagan, Jim Baker, and the Coil of History

The Texan who tried to keep the nomination from the Gipper proved essential to his election

Roger Ailes has been dining out for years on the fact that he helped prepare Ronald Reagan for his second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. In fact, Reagan’s 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter was far more consequential. And James A. Baker has never gotten the credit he deserves for his yeoman’s work in preparing the Gipper for his “High Noon” showdown with President Carter.

James A. Baker (photo: Washington Speakers)

No doubt Reagan was disappointed with his first performance in 1984 against Mondale and wasn’t going to let it happen again, so it was really Reagan who spurred himself forward. He was angry with himself and frustrated with himself. He was, as Mike Deaver once told me, “The most competitive son of a bitch who ever lived.”

Reagan was a superb debater long before 1984. In 1967, he debated Robert F. Kennedy live on national television. Kennedy thought it would be a walkover of this former Hollywood actor. After the debate, they had to scrape Kennedy off the floor. RFK later told his brother Teddy that “Reagan was the toughest debater” he ever faced.

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Even if the Gipper lost his second debate with Mondale — which featured the memorable line “I am not going to exploit for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” — America laughed. Even Mondale laughed. That was it. Game, set, match – he probably still would have won re-election. Americans just did not like throwing elected incumbents out of office and certainly not beloved presidents like the Gipper. Certainly not presidents who were presiding over a tremendous American renaissance.

It wasn’t that Reagan did badly in his first debate with Mondale — it’s more that expectations were out of control for him, and many were also wondering if Reagan’s age had caught up with him. It was literally the worst of both worlds.

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But he walked into a buzz saw when he uttered “There you go again” one too many times. Mondale was ready and, turning it around, schooled Reagan on cutting Medicare spending. He also delivered a lousy closing statement. In between, he was OK — except he talked more like a policy wonk than a world leader. White House aide Dick Darman (now deceased) was in charge of the debate prep and whipsawed Reagan and shoved meaningless statistics down his throat — M1 supply, throw weights, etc, etc.

One shudders to think if someone less competent had been placed in charge of the all-important debate prep.

The American people knew Reagan and he knew them, and when he showed up debating the way Darman wanted, they were not happy. Reagan later complained of the prep team, “It was all these numbers they made me memorize.” He was very unhappy, very depressed, and mad at himself. He knew better.

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Afterward, Nancy Reagan wanted Darman fired, but Jim Baker interceded, later recalling it was the only time they ever disagreed on anything. Mrs. Reagan and Baker were very close, right up to the end, with Baker giving a eulogy at her funeral earlier this year at Simi Valley.

However, the 1984 debate wasn’t crucial for Reagan. He was going to win anyway. Even after the first debate, he was still well ahead in the polls. It was the 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, one week before the election, which was imperative. The outcome of everything was a stake, including, and most especially, the presidency of the United States and the mantle of Leader of the Free World.

It is this debate in which Jim Baker, the tall and cool Texan, did so much to help Reagan, and as a result, probably won the presidency of 1980. The polls were tight and Carter was surging in many.

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Bill Casey, Reagan’s underappreciated manager, handed the entire debate portfolio to Jim Baker, late of the Bush campaign. Though Baker had been manager for his old friend, George H.W. Bush, there had been a very good rapport with Reagan. When Baker ran for attorney general in Texas in 1978, Reagan went happily in to campaign for him. He also broached with Baker running his own campaign in 1980.

Baker, pencil behind an ear, approached the debate preparation job with toughness and thoroughness. He assembled a group of briefers, questioners (including Jeane Kirkpatrick and George F. Will), and a stand-in, a young congressman, David Stockman, who first portrayed John Anderson and later Jimmy Carter. (Anderson and Reagan debated in Baltimore in 1980, sans Carter.)

He put together a mock stage at a private estate, Wexford, in rural Virginia (which was once owned by John and Jackie Kennedy) and put Reagan through his paces. The camp had divided into two regarding the debate with Carter: the hawks and the doves. Surprisingly, many old hands were doves opposed to Reagan debating Carter, including Mrs. Reagan. They were fearful of what Carter would do to the Gipper. But the hawk Baker had seen Reagan up close and personal, and knew that Reagan was ready and able. So too was longtime aide, confidant, and friend Stu Spencer. There was symmetry. Reagan’s oldest gubernatorial campaign aide from 1966, Spencer, thought Reagan should debate. And Reagan’s newest aide, Baker, also thought he should debate.

Reagan was masterful that evening in Cleveland. Defying expectations, he won — at least as far as the American people were concerned. The elites thought otherwise but it was of little matter. According to all the polls, Reagan won the debate and then won the presidency in one of the greatest landslides in American history. Carter’s pollster Pat Caddell has maintained for nearly 40 years that without that debate, Carter might well have won re-election. Had Reagan lost, he might well have lost the election. But Reagan won and Baker deserves much of the credit. Baker was the right man in the right place at the right time. One shudders to think if someone less competent had been placed in charge of the all-important debate prep.

Prior to the debate, alone in the holding room with Reagan, Baker was there when the GOP nominee wanted to “have a word with the man upstairs.” Baker then suggested that Reagan go on stage and walk over to the president and shake his hand. Reagan did so and gained a small advantage with his sporting gesture.

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Jim Baker’s place in history is now assured, along with John Hay, Col. Edward House, Harry Hopkins, Cordell Hull, George F. Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Ed Meese, Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Schulz, and other important presidential counselors. He was a U.S. Marine, a campaign manager, Reagan’s White House de facto chief of staff, secretary of the treasury, secretary of state, director of George W. Bush’s recount effort in Florida in 2000, and head of a commission on Iraq. But maybe none of these would have happened without his superb, reassuring, and history-altering leadership of Reagan’s debate team in 1980.

A few conservatives over the years have had their problems with Baker (which this writer questions) but without Baker, would Reagan have won in 1980? Would there have been a Reagan Revolution? Would Reagan have enacted his historical tax cuts, producing 96 months of economic growth, or brought down a wall and an Evil Empire? Would Reagan have literally changed our world? Would Reagan have had a chance to be Reagan without Baker? In fact, Reagan once wrote, “There has not been one single instance of Jim Baker doing anything but what I’ve settled on as our policy.” Reagan knew good men when he saw them.

Reagan was surrounded by a lot of good men and women, and one of those happened to be Jim Baker, the campaign manager for a man who tried to stop Reagan from winning the 1980 nomination.

Such are the twists and turns of American history.

Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and presidential historian. He is the author of the forthcoming books “Reagan Rising” and “Citizen Newt.” Scott Mauer assisted with this article.

Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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