Bobby Baker appears on the June 6, 1978, episode of ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” (AP)
Bobby Baker, a protege of future president Lyndon B. Johnson whose career of wealth and privilege came crashing down in an influence-peddling scandal, died Nov. 12 — his 89th birthday — in St. Augustine, Fla.
The death of Mr. Baker, once the most influential staffer in the U.S. Senate, was confirmed in an announcement by the Craig Funeral Home in St. Augustine. No cause was reported.
“Mr. Baker, I understand you know where the bodies are buried in the Senate. I’d appreciate it if you’d come to my office and talk with me,” the newly elected Sen. Johnson (D-Tex.) said in his first telephone conversation with Mr. Baker in late 1948.
Mr. Baker was just 20 at the time and a staffer for the Senate leadership, keeping track of legislation and when it would be coming up for a vote. His vast knowledge of the operations of the Senate and his facility in the art of accommodation — moving pet legislative projects ahead for some senators or helping fulfill the proclivities of others for drink, sex or cash — would make him an invaluable asset to Johnson.
He would come to be known as “Little Lyndon,” and he became the eyes and ears in the Senate for the man he would refer to simply as “Leader.” As majority leader, a post Johnson was elected to in 1955, the Texas senator never wanted to be on the wrong side of a vote, and Mr. Baker developed an uncanny knack of giving him a precise head count for any upcoming tally.
“He is the first person I talk to in the morning and the last one at night,” Johnson once said.
For his part, Mr. Baker made it fairly clear he would do anything to curry favor with Johnson. He copied his mentor’s clothes and mannerisms and named two of his children after the senator.
As Johnson’s power grew, so did Mr. Baker’s. President John F. Kennedy once referred to the young aide as the “101st senator.”
Using his guile, political skill and finesse in the art of the deal, Mr. Baker amassed a fortune of more than $2 million in his moonlighting activities with holdings in cattle, insurance, vending machines, real estate and gambling operations in the Caribbean. He lived in the Spring Valley section of Washington, close to the far wealthier Johnson. He achieved all of this on an official salary of $19,600 a year.
Years later, he justified his highflying ways in his memoir, which was aptly titled: “Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator.”
“Like my bosses and sponsors in the Senate, I was ambitious and eager to feather my personal nest,” Mr. Baker wrote in the book, a collaboration with author Larry L. King.
“As they presumed their high stations to entitle them to accept gratuities or hospitalities from patrons who had special axes to grind, so did I,” Mr. Baker added. “As they took advantage of privileged information to get in on the ground floor of attractive investments, so did I. As they used their powerful positions to gain loans or credit that otherwise might not have been granted, so did I.”
Mr. Baker’s world of privilege and political connections came crashing down in the fall of 1963. A former business associate, Ralph Hill, filed a lawsuit against him, charging that Mr. Baker had taken thousands of dollars in cash from Hill to use his influence with North American Aviation Corp. to steer a vending machine contract Hill’s way. And then, Hill charged, Mr. Baker double-crossed him.
The lawsuit piqued the interest of Senate Republicans, who pressed for an investigation. And Johnson, who was then the vice president and feared that his own questionable financial dealings would come under scrutiny, went to extraordinary lengths to deny his close relationship with Mr. Baker, the man he once declared was “like a son to me because I don’t have one of my own.”
He basically cut his protege off without a word.
The beginning of a downfall
Mr. Baker soon showed up on the cover of Time magazine, and Life ran an article detailing his highflying career and pointing to his relationships with certain “party girls.”
It was discovered that Mr. Baker owned a condominium where high-profile Washington figures were entertained by women who were not their wives. Time quoted one neighbor as saying: “A lot of people used to come through the back door. That struck us as strange. Most of our guests come through the front door.”
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.
The club was outfitted with a buzzer that alerted senators when measures were coming up for a vote so they could scurry across the street for a roll call. One report from the time said that the club was just “an ice cube’s throw from the Capitol.”
Mr. Baker thought he could control the damage from the calls for an investigation by quietly resigning his Senate post in the fall of 1963, just before a Senate panel was starting a probe.
The Democratic-controlled Senate conducted a lukewarm inquiry and offered a whitewashed report. Kennedy’s assassination that November and the fact that Johnson was now president may also have dampened enthusiasm for a vigorous probe. It certainly dampened the news coverage of Mr. Baker’s relationship with the new president.
But Mr. Baker’s troubles were far from over.
His legal downfall came in 1967, when he was indicted on charges of tax evasion, theft and fraud. Mr. Baker had allegedly been asked by savings and loan industry officials in California to deliver a six-figure sum to Sen. Robert Kerr (D-Okla.), who died in 1963. According to Mr. Baker’s memoir, that money was to have been an inducement to derail a bill that would have been costly to the savings and loan industry. Mr. Baker’s transgression, according to the grand jury, was that he kept nearly $50,000 for himself.
Mr. Baker denied the charges, but he was convicted and by January 1971, all of his legal challenges had been rejected. He prepared himself for federal prison, where he served 16 months of a one- to three-year sentence.
The eldest of eight children, Robert Gene Baker was born in Easley, S.C., on Nov. 12, 1928. His father, Ernest, was a postal worker. Years later, during the Eisenhower administration, when his son was enjoying considerable influence in the Senate, Ernest Baker was appointed postmaster of Easley.
At an early age, Bobby Baker was working at a local Rexall drugstore. He wrote in his memoir that he developed an aptitude for sizing up the wants and desires of some of the town’s leading citizens: “As a delivery boy, I witnessed secret drinkers and occasionally found a strange man in another man’s house. Very early I concluded that things are not always what they seem.”
He was just 14 when he was offered the chance to go to Washington as a page in the Senate after the son of a local political boss turned the opportunity down. He earned a high school degree from the Capitol Page School and received a bachelor’s degree from American University in 1955.
His marriage, in 1949, to Dorothy Comstock, a clerk for the Senate internal security subcommittee, ended in divorce. Their son Lyndon died at 16 in an automobile accident. Survivors include four children; several siblings; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
After leaving prison, Mr. Baker lived in South Florida and worked for a time for a waste management firm.
A few months before Johnson’s death in January 1973, the former president asked Mr. Baker to visit him at his ranch in Texas, with the understanding that the visit would be kept private before and after it occurred.
According to Mr. Baker, Johnson explained his failure to speak out in his protege’s defense by saying: “Everything within me wanted to come to your aid. But they would have crucified me,” Mr. Baker recalled in his memoir.
At the end of the weekend visit, Mr. Baker wrote that he passed by the guest book that Johnson and his wife had kept on a table in the hallway of their sprawling ranch house. Although Mr. Baker had signed it numerous times in the past, on this last visit the invitation to do so again was not extended to him. Johnson was still taking no chances.