On November 12, 2017, Robert G. “Bobby” Baker died on his 89th birthday. A long-forgotten figure now, five decades ago Baker was the poster boy for all that was bad about the Washington, D.C. political swamp. Baker played a central role in the massive corruption involving leading politicians on Capitol Hill, most of them Democrats, including facilitating a variety of financial crimes and gaining favors from politicians by providing them with prostitutes. Ultimately, Baker became the fall guy who took, or was forced to take, the rap for the misdeeds while others at a much higher level in the circle of corruption, especially his mentor Lyndon B. Johnson, escaped accountability. Sound familiar?
It all came to a head in 1963, a year when political scandals and sexual peccadillos were very much in the news. But initially that was in England, where the notorious Profumo affair, involving high priced call girls servicing the country’s top politicians, brought down the government of conservative prime minister Harold MacMillan. Anything like it had never been seen before in modern times. In the fall of 1963, there were the first reports of a similar, mounting political scandal on this side of the pond as Baker, a top U.S. Senate staffer and the protégé of and one-time closest aide to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, was about to become embroiled in a growing scandal involving influence peddling; the bribing of leading politicians with payoffs, sex, and alcohol; and other typical illegal goings-on in the D.C. swamp that normally didn’t come to public attention back then.
As Time reported in a cover story on Baker and political corruption published on March 6, 1964:
It was also disclosed that Mr. Baker was the co-founder of the Quorum Club, located in the Carroll Arms, a small hotel on Capitol Hill. It was a place where lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties would drink, play cards and dally with young women.
Baker emerged on the scene in the 1940s from out of nowhere – specifically Pickens, South Carolina and had a meteoric rise in Washington, D.C. starting at a very young age When he was 14, he became a Senate page, completing his high school education at the Capitol Page School; in 1955 he received a bachelor’s degree from American University. By age 17, he was the head page of the U.S. Senate. In 1955 he was elected by acclamation to the position of secretary to the Democrat majority in the Senate. This job made Baker one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes players in the nation’s capital. As LBJ, until 1960 the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, once said, “He is the first person I talk to in the morning and the last one at night.”
The scandal that ensnared Baker only months before JFK’s assassination on November 22,1963 began his undoing. Almost overnight, including courtesy of cover stories in Time and Life magazines, Baker came to personify for the media, the opposition Republican party, and the public the sleazy, corrupt world inhabited and ruled by the Democrats and Baker’s boss, LBJ. At one time, Johnson said that Baker was “like a son to me because I don’t have one of my own.” Ultimately, when the scandals Baker was involved in came to the attention of the media, the public, and the courts, he quickly became a poster boy for the corruption that was rampant – if seldom reported on – in the nation’s capital. He was also persona non grata among his Democrat friends. Ultimately, he became the convenient scapegoat for his superiors who were the ones calling the shots in the nefarious and illegal dealings that characterized that era of near-total Democrat rule in Washington, D.C.
On January 26, 1964, the New York Times reported that Baker’s “net worth zoomed from $11,000 in 1954 to more than $2.5 million in 1963.”
How Mr. Baker got on the financial escalator is one of the unanswered questions of his career. When he got on is fairly clear. It was some time between 1954, when he declared a net worth of $11,025, and 1957 when he claimed it to be $84,133. His Senate salary in those two years was $9,000 and $12,500, respectively. In February, 1963, his salary was $19,600 but his claimed net worth was $2,256,855. His financial statement was featured by an impressive portfolio of stock and real estate holdings, and by some equally impressive bank debts in cities as far away as Dallas and Oklahoma City.
In 1967, Baker was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes and eventually, his appeals exhausted, he served 16 months in federal prison in the early 1970s. By then, ostracized by his fellow Democrats, he was off the radar and he remained in obscurity for the rest of his life.
In the fall of 1963, the mainstream media was on the trail not only of Baker but of LBJ and other top Democrat pols who he was associated with, and they had planned follow-up stories specifically implicating Vice President Johnson, when President Kennedy was assassinated. With LBJ elevated to commander in chief, the planned exposés never saw the light of day. Baker, however, could not escape the long arm of the law and he was eventually prosecuted and convicted but, like mobster Al Capone in the 1930s, only for tax evasion.
After getting out of prison in 1972, Baker moved to Florida and pursued successful legitimate business interests including investments in real estate and hotels. In 1978, he published a memoir, Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator, which named names. By that time, most of the politicians he was writing about were dead or had left the scene. Since Baker’s death, the book has risen in popularity (and price of used copies) at Amazon.
As a boy in the 1960s when all of this was going down, I recall that the words most often associated with Baker, and with LBJ, after 1963 were “wheeler dealer.” A dictionary with an entry for “wheeler dealer” could simply have had a picture of Baker and it would have been worth a thousand words.
In the fall of 2015, Coast Style magazine of Maryland tracked Baker down in Florida. In his final years, his memory was still intact and he was all too willing to give the magazine an extensive interview, which became the publication’s Sept.-Oct. 2015 cover story, “Finding Bobby Baker.” It’s a fascinating read.
What do you regard as your greatest accomplishment, Bobby?
Being the youngest elected secretary to the United States Senate Majority.
What was your biggest mistake?
Not suing for prejudice in my legal troubles.
To whom do you owe the biggest apology?
I owe the biggest apology to my wife, Dorothy.
How would you like your epitaph to read?
“He had a great life.”
The New York Times and Washington Post obituaries of Baker are also very interesting reading. His life, and his rise to and fall from the apex of power more than a half century ago, are emblematic of the post-World War II world at the height of the American Century – one of the most colorful, significant, problematic, and divisive political periods of U.S. history.
Baker’s local Florida funeral home obituary is here. It has a long list of his many survivors – including children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. A Roman Catholic Memorial Mass for Baker will be celebrated on December 1 at 9 A.M. at St Anastasia Catholic Church, 5205 A1A South, St Augustine, FL 32080.
Peter Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture. Follow Peter on Twitter @pchowka Peter’s latest interview on The Hagmann Report from Nov. 15, 2017 can be watched here.