David Ellis
August 31, 1992 12:00 PM

APPEARANCES CAN DECEIVE. TRAVELING the world as Secretary of State, James Baker was the epitome of the imperturbable diplomat in pinstripes. But sartorial details betray him. Along with the impeccable suits came cowboy boots. “Jim Baker,” says Ben Love, an old Texas chum, “is a paradoxical guy. He wears an Hermès tie, but he can spit that tobacco pretty far.” And out on Rock Pile, his ,400-acre ranch south of San Antonio, or on his ,500-acre spread in western Wyoming, Baker, 62, is the proverbial man’s man, roughing it in the scrubland and snuggling into sleeping bags far from modern plumbing, eschewing fine diplomatic nuance for good ol’ Texas cussin’.

“Anything he does, he does well,” says Love. Adds Preston Moore, 60, Baker’s cousin and sometime golf partner: “He doesn’t like to lose in anything and, interestingly, he doesn’t lose a lot.” Which is probably why his best friend and tennis buddy, George Bush, has asked him to fill the job of White House Chief of Staff and to guide the President’s floundering reelection campaign. The Baker family’s patrician standards, says Moore, make it impossible for Baker not to do his darnedest. “Once you’ve grown up all your life with high expectations,” he explains, “you don’t let the people down, and you don’t choke when the going gets tough.” He recalls a crucial moment when Baker was a high school sophomore in Houston, also the site of the Baker family’s law firm. “The first-string quarterback got knocked out. Well, Jimmy’d never played in a game situation before, but he went in and was quarterback and played real well under a lot of pressure, and we won that game.” That doggedness carried him through Princeton, the Marines and a lucrative corporate law career.

Yet Baker’s accomplishments mask a long list of family traumas. His younger sister Bonner suffered an emotional collapse in college and spent years in treatment for schizophrenia. In 1968 his wife, Mary, whom he had met on a spring-break rugby trip to Bermuda during his sophomore year at Princeton and had wed in 1953, was found to have breast cancer. As her condition deteriorated, Baker turned inward, taking long introspective drives around Houston. Mary died in February 1970, leaving Jim in charge of four sons, aged 5 to 8: James IV, Mike, John and Douglas. “It hurt him a great deal,” says John, now 32. “I know from old letters I’ve seen that they were very much in love.” A second tragedy rocked the family in 1977, when Mary’s parents were killed in a car accident on their way to visit the grandchildren.

On Aug. 6, 1973, Baker remarried. His bride was one of Mary’s best friends, Susan Winston, the divorced daughter of a Texas rancher, who had three children of her own. Uniting the two families meant trouble. “It was bumpy,” says John. “There was someone else coming in to take the place of my mother.” Baker once said, “Susan and her children moved over to the house [Mary] had built and never lived to move into. There were some natural feelings of resentment.” Susan and Jim, who had a daughter together, Mary Bonner, now 4, both say God has helped them through difficult times. Baker, who attends an informal prayer group in Washington, says that he has learned the value of humility: “Susan helped me see that I needed to stop playing God and turn the matter over to Him.”

Apart from occasional football games and hunting trips, Baker spent little time with his sons—except when they got into trouble. John was arrested on marijuana-selling charges in 1982. “I expected to be really punished,” says John, now a manager for a Houston marine firm. “But he just sat me down and tried to explain himself as to why he thought it was so wrong for me to do what I was doing. And he said that no matter what, I was still his son and that he still loved me. Considering that I tried to cause him and my stepmother so much pain that’s a pretty special deal.”

Baker’s second son, Mike, now 35, had his share of problems as well. An alcoholic, he has been in treatment programs since 1985. “My father’s been there for me through thick and thin,” he says, “backing me up and saying I’m still a good kid.” The sons have since reconciled with their stepmother. Says John: “My stepmother and I are extremely close now. She was more helpful during my drug rehabilitation only because my Dad was busy, so she was there more than he.”

Baker was always there for his friend Bush, from the time they came together as a doubles team at the Houston Country Club 35 years ago. After Mary’s death, Bush helped Baker through his grief by preoccupying him with Bush’s bid for the Senate. Bush lost the race but instilled in Baker a new passion for their political partnership. Baker looked out for his friend with regard to Jennifer Fitzgerald, Bush’s influential but abrasive personal assistant. Baker saw to it that Fitzgerald was taken down a peg or two during the 1980 campaign. Fitzgerald allegedly was romantically involved with Bush, a charge he has holly denied.

With a position so close to the presidency, is Baker pining for the office himself? He is often mentioned as a possible candidate, though he is not publicly one of the mentioners. Perhaps he is just biding his time. Says son Mike: “He’s got the patience, and that’s what hunting is all about. He is able to sit there for hours and wait for the turkey to come to the blind.”


LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C.

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