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Grand Vizier rules himself out of court

The shelves of American bookstores will be collapsing under the weight of worthy tomes this autumn. Speaker Newt's thoughts on how to save the nation have already appeared. General Colin Powell will be treating us to his remarkable life story. Also due for publication is The Politics of Diplomacy by James Baker, of whom one thing at least may safely be said. Of the three authors, he alone is not running for President.

No so long ago, the political skills of James Addison Baker III mesmerised Washington - first as Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff and subsequently Treasury Secretary, then as Secretary of State under George Bush - as much as his flashy monochrome ties.

Mr Baker was the man who emerged unscathed from every disaster, from Iran-Contra to the failure to anticipate Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Only the last act was a let-down, his recall to the White House to oversee the doomed Bush re-election campaign.

One image from that wretched campaign lingers, on a raw October afternoon in Wisconsin, amid the razzmatazz of a train tour which Mr Bush hoped would wreak an 11th hour miracle. Through a carriage window you could make out the bowed silhouette of Mr Baker, half-smiling at the futility, resigned to inevitable defeat.

For a while, his name was on everyone's shortlist for 1996, but as no sign emerged of serious planning, the talk subsided. A recent aside made it unofficially official: "I've gotten over the virus of Presidential ambition."

It is as well. In the last couple of years even Mr Baker's supreme asset - the Teflon coating that rivalled Ronald Reagan - was starting to tarnish. To the stigma of 1992 must now be added a perceived share of the blame for Bosnia.

But there are deeper reasons why a Baker run was never plausible. His party constituency was invisible, his name a throwback to an era that, for Republican believers, is a grey parenthesis between Reaganism and Gingrichism. Ultimately, too, he was always less a leader than a courtier, a Grand Vizier of successive administrations who pulled many strings but whose fate was inextricably linked with that of his bosses.

Mr Baker affected the odd common touch - cowboy boots, an adjustable Southern drawl, and drinking beer out of a can at black-tie parties. But many were unconvinced. In his own new autobiography, Power, Pasta and Politics, the gritty Republican senator Alfonse D'Amato calls James Baker a "blue-blooded snob".

Patricians are rarely fleshpressers and James Baker of the thin smile is no exception. Only once did he run for office, for Texas Attorney-General in 1978. He lost and thereafter his career is essentially the story of his close, yet complex 30-year friendship with that transplanted Houstonian, George Bush. For all Mr Baker's influence, his deftness, his sometimes unconcealed sense of superiority, he remained the subordinate, the "younger brother" as Bush once called him.

So what now? A book, speaking engagements, good works, doubtless some powerbroking from a plush office in the family law firm of Baker and Botts, plus the simpler joys of hunting and fishing at his Wyoming ranch. There are many worse things. Jim Baker deep down might accept that in Washington only one job is worth having. Like many others, he has flinched at the price to be paid.