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April 17, 2014

Bobby Baker’s Heady Days

Washington is replete with political memoirs, but few can stand up to the candid yet oft forgotten 1978 autobiography of Bobby Baker, which opens with an account of how he received protection in prison from Jimmy Hoffa.

“I’ll see that my guys get the word out. Bobby Baker is Hoffa’s friend,” Baker quotes the union leader as saying after Baker arrived at the high-security Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania to serve a sentence for tax evasion and fraud.

He subsequently moved to nearby Allenwood, a low-security facility where he served the remainder of his term. Baker, an acolyte of President and former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, was sentenced to three years but served 16 months.

The book is loaded with anecdotes depicting the smoky, closed-curtain deal-making of the Senate of yesteryear.

“I mindlessly imitated the common practice of many senators, and the prevailing institutional mores, in accepting the more subtle forms of bribery,” Baker reflects.

In one not-so-subtle instance, Baker, who had befriended the uncrowned king of the chamber, Sen. Bob Kerr (D-Okla.), arranged for him to receive $400,000 from savings and loan interests seeking to defeat or alter a 1962 bill that would have raised their taxes.

Kerr, known as the richest man in the Senate, “worshipped money,” Baker writes, and was always looking to expand his fortune. He agreed to the deal despite holding commercial banking interests that favored the bill.

But the savings and loans interests, embarrassingly, could not raise the cash and begged Kerr to do their bidding for $200,000. They dribbled out the first $100,000, but Kerr died of a heart attack before the second tranche could be delivered.

Kerr died “on January 1, 1963, a year before the next $100,000 payment was due. And I would go to jail over that money,” Baker writes.

Other anecdotes include how he helped overcome a filibuster to make Alaska a state and his version of how LBJ got the vice presidential nod in 1960.

The book chronicles Baker’s climb in the Senate, which began when he arrived from Pickens, S.C., as a page at age 14.  There he learned the habits of the powerful and the secrets of the Senate Cloakroom.

When “safe in the cloakroom, senators opened up their heads and hearts — especially as the day wore on and flasks were nipped,” Baker writes.

His knowledge of the chamber was renowned, and Johnson sought him out upon winning the Senate seat. Baker served him as secretary to the Majority Leader.

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