In 1967, when Bobby Baker, former Senate majority secretary and Lyndon Johnson protégé, was sentenced to prison, there was more than a little skittery speculation in Washington about whom he might decide to take with him. But Baker refused to implicate anyone else in the tax evasion, theft and fraud charges against him, or to plea bargain before conviction. “The Democratic party was damn good to me,” he says, “and I’d have destroyed a lot of people if I had testified.”
Now, five years after his release from Allenwood, Pa. federal prison, Baker, 49, is some grayer and some balder. But, more important, he is something like a million dollars in hock. So the party martyr’s stiff upper lip is loosening, and he’s now intimating that he’s got the goods on half the town and will bear witness in a book, especially against his high-placed betrayers. “I wanted to call it Fall Guy,” he cracks, “but the publisher wants to call it Dealing. Let them call it what they want—they paid their money, six figures.”
The book, due in May, promises to be a sensation, even in the decade of self-serving political history. Of course, many of the villains are dead and can’t get redress on earth. A well-known Democratic senator, he leaks, will be accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions. An ex-Democratic Cabinet officer allegedly trafficked in bribe money. Another tale is added to the growing legend of President Kennedy’s sex life (this one has Bobby Kennedy bugging his brother’s private phone and arranging a deportation to protect him).
Even Bobby’s mentor, LBJ, will receive lurid attention. On a final visit to Johnson’s ranch in 1972, Baker found the former President dying (he had cancer too, claims Bobby) but insatiable as ever for palaver. “He said the worst tragedy in his life was what happened to me,” recalls Baker. “He said he’d been assured they didn’t have any case against me.” Then, on the way out, Baker noticed the guest register and that “he didn’t ask me to sign.” Says Bobby bitterly of their final meeting: “He was ashamed of me.”
A postman’s son from Pickens, S.C., Baker came to Washington as a Senate page in 1943, worked his way through law school and eventually ingratiated himself into the Democratic congressional power structure. “He was an unabashed lackey, a bootlicker,” a former LBJ aide once said, but Johnson hired him as Senate Democratic secretary in 1953. Soon Baker was ranked by some as the second most powerful man in the Senate, sort of his boss’s surrogate son. Cynical and slick, Baker transformed his modest $19,600-a-year salary into a $2 million fortune in cattle, vending machines, insurance and Caribbean gambling concessions. “It was all just as American as apple pie,” he says of his fortune.
But by 1963, with Johnson Vice-President, Baker’s personal empire began to crumble. Seven years later (much of them spent in courts and hearing rooms) he began serving his up-to-three-year sentence. During his actual 16 months at Allenwood, Baker claims, mysteriously, that he was protected by the Mafia, thanks to Jimmy Hoffa, who was imprisoned in Lewisburg, Pa. at the time. “Jimmy ran Lewisburg and Allenwood,” he says, “and anything he said was done.” Otherwise, Bobby suggests melodramatically, lifers with nothing to lose would have killed him “for the publicity.”
Now divorced from his wife of 27 years, Baker lives alone in a fashionable two-bedroom apartment in Washington. Three of his five children (ages 16 to 24) visit on weekends (Bobby cooks), while two older sons, Bobby Jr. and Jimmy, attend law school in California. During his appeals in 1965, Baker’s longtime secretary and confidante, former beauty queen Carole Tyler, was killed in a plane crash. “It was the greatest emotional crisis I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. He has since enjoyed “a little friend 20 years younger than me,” but has no plans to marry again.
Back into real estate and other wheeling-dealing as heavily as ever, Bobby recently told of finding the right lawyer for a friend’s son allegedly caught dealing cocaine. And his own boy Lyndon, 16, was able to leapfrog the long line and two-day wait for his driver’s test in Washington because his father knew exactly where to deliver two half gallons of Chivas Regal. “I was raised in this town, baby,” crows Baker. “I know how it works.”