Key figure in the DC Swamp scandals half a century ago passes on

Insider wheeling and dealing has a long, dishonorable history in our nation’s capital. There are many lessons to be learned from an all but forgotten insider at the heart of scandal in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  The death on November 12 of Robert G. “Bobby” Baker on his 89th birthday recalls another time long ago when political scandals and sexual pecadillos were also very much in the news. It was 1963, and Baker, a top U.S. Senate staffer and the protégé of and closest aide to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, was about to become embroiled in a scandal involving influence peddling, the bribing of leading politicians with payoffs, sex, and alcohol, and other typical goings-on in the D.C. swamp that normally didn’t come to light back then.

Baker – at age 17 the head page of the U.S. Senate, the assistant secretary to the (Democrat) minority by January, 1954 and elected by acclamation to secretary to the (Democrat) majority in the Senate by January, 1955 – was one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes players in the nation’s capital.  As LBJ said, “He is the first person I talk to in the morning and the last one at night.”

Life cover story on Baker November 8, 1963

The scandal that ensnared Baker only months before JFK’s assassination began his undoing. Almost overnight, courtesy of cover stories in Time and Life magazines, Baker personified for the media, and the Republicans, the sleazy 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 corruption in Washington, and a 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 1967, Baker was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes and eventually served 16 months in federal prison. He has been almost totally off the radar since 1967.

After getting out of prison in 1972, Baker moved to Florida and pursued legitimate business interests including investments in real estate and motels. In 1978, he published a memoir, Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator. Since his 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 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.

In the fall of 2015, Coast Style magazine of Maryland tracked Baker down in Florida. 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.”

Bobby Baker in 2015 with Time cover story on him published on March 6, 1964

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 political world at the height of the American Century – one of the most colorful, significant, and problematic periods of U.S. history.

Baker’s local 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 Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture.  Follow Peter on Twitter @pchowka.

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