Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of speaking with Peter Baker, who is the co-author of a wonderful new biography of the legendary statesman James Baker — no relation. Peter Baker is the co-author with his wife Susan Glasser. She, of course, is with the New Yorker magazine; he is with the New York Times. James Baker served, notably, four presidents?
Baker: He did, yeah.
Tooley: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and tangentially or at least indirectly, George W. Bush. Perhaps most notably as Reagan’s Chief of Staff and his Treasury Secretary, and then, of course, George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State during the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. This is, I believe, the first major biography of a very notable figure in American history. So, Peter, thank you for joining this conversation.
Baker: Thank you for having me. I’m really glad to be here.
Tooley: So, please tell us why James Baker is an important man in American history, and why you believe he’s the most significant Secretary of State since Henry Kissinger.
Baker: Yeah, Baker is such an interesting character, and we were surprised when we discovered that nobody has ever done a biography about him. He not only was the Secretary of State of a very transformative time in our world: the end of the Cold War, reunification of Germany, the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War, he also ran five presidential campaigns. Imagine, in effect, Henry Kissinger and Karl Rove wrapped into one, right. So, he played in so many different major areas in Washington over the course of a generation. Really from the end of Watergate to the end of the Cold War, anything happening in Washington seemed like it had Jim Baker’s hand in some way or another. And to be able to be both successful at party politics, campaign politics as ugly as it got, and also at statecraft, as important as it got, I think makes him one of the most significant figures of the post-World War II era. In fact, Tom Donilon, who was Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor, said that he thought Jim Baker was the most important unelected figure in American history after World War II.
Tooley: He was successful, seemingly, in almost everything he did across several presidencies, three Republican presidents, yet was often opposed quite strongly by conservative Republicans. Why was that?
Baker: Yeah. I mean, Baker was himself a conservative. He was from Texas. But he was also a pragmatist. He didn’t believe in fighting fights just for the sake of fighting them. If he wasn’t going to actually get something accomplished, he considered it a waste of time. What he would tell you is that that was Reagan’s point of view, even though a lot of conservatives revere Reagan, that Reagan was more of a pragmatic figure as well. That Reagan would tell him, Baker when he was Chief of Staff, all the time, “I’d rather get 80% of what I want than go over a cliff flying my flag.” And that’s what is really interesting about this character and why we did this book in some ways, because that’s such a different point of view than today’s politics in Washington. Today it feels like it’s a zero-sum game on both sides of the aisle. Liberals and conservatives seem like at times they would rather have an issue than a partial loaf, a partial-loaf accomplishment. Baker was the master of the partial loaf. Now he got more than half a loaf the vast majority of the time. He got most of what he wanted. But he recognized that you had to give something up in order to get something, and that was the way he practiced politics. Sometimes that made him unpopular with the conservative wing of his own party, which would prefer to be more purist on some of these issues, but his view was you could have an issue and if you don’t actually get legislation passed or an order signed, there’s no point to it.
Tooley: He came to politics and to Washington later in life, but had no direct training in that arena, and yet seemed to move in a very polished fashion to all of the positions he served in. What about his character or background had prepared him for a life in statecraft?
Baker: Yeah, it’s really interesting, right, because Baker was not prepared for this. He didn’t get into politics until his 40s, had nothing to do with it, when he was Secretary of Treasury he had no training in that, he had basically just taken one economics class in college and didn’t do particularly well in that, when he was Secretary of State he had really not traveled much outside of the country and didn’t speak any foreign languages, hadn’t studied the history of the Treaty of Westphalia, and didn’t have some great geostrategic view of the world like Kissinger. But what Baker had more than anything else, I think, was natural instincts. Instincts for how other people think and work and how to get things done. He was a master at the negotiating table. He could put himself in the position of the person opposite him at the table, figure out what that person needed in order to walk away feeling successful while still getting Baker what he wanted, and what the person’s red lines were where there’s no point in pushing that person beyond because he or she couldn’t go that far. And that applied whether it was politics and campaigning, that applied whether it was Secretary of Treasury when he was negotiating currency exchange agreements, and that definitely applied when he was Secretary of State negotiating the reunification of Germany or bringing the Israelis and Arabs together in the same room for the first time at the Madrid Peace Conference.
Tooley: Now, he was a longtime best friends and political partners with George H.W. Bush. Bush, of course, was sort of the embodiment of the New England WASP establishment. Baker was a native of Texas, but was the equivalent of the WASP establishment in Texas, from a patrician family of Presbyterian background but became Episcopalian later. Both Bush and Baker seem to be, by ancestry and by temperament, very comfortable with power, and perhaps that administration was the last truly WASP presidency?
Baker: Yeah, I guess you’re right. They both came from sort of aristocratic backgrounds in a sense. Very elite backgrounds. Baker’s family in Texas had been one of the founding families of Houston in a real way. His great grandfather, grandfather, and father had really helped build the institutions of modern-day Houston, whether it be economic or cultural or educational. Rice University, one of the best universities in the country, was really formed by Baker’s grandfather for instance. And I think that that, of course, was a heavy burden on Baker as he was growing up. You’re the fourth person named James Addison Baker, there’s a lot to live up to. His mother said that to him, “you have a lot to live up to,” but politics wasn’t part of it. They were big into civic duty, but they weren’t big into politics. In fact, his family slogan was “work hard, study, but stay out of politics.” And I think that Baker sort of went along with that basically for the first four decades of his life, but he became kind of restless doing corporate law in Texas and decided that he wanted to try politics. And it was his friend George H.W. Bush from the tennis courts of Houston Country Club who brought him in, said okay, Bake, come work with me on my Senate campaign, and it came at a time when Baker was experiencing great personal tragedy because his first wife dies of cancer, leaving four boys behind. And it really is Bush who kind of pulls them out of that grief and says politics is a new venture for you, and Baker found that it really fit.
Tooley: Now, I doubt he ever thought of himself this way, but the theme of our journal is Christian Realism, and it seems like Baker would fit into that category in that he was, as you say, a pragmatist but he also held on to American ideals about democracy and human rights at the same time, while pursuing the national interest of the country. And certainly, that was represented in his conduct throughout the Persian Gulf War and how he negotiated the end of the Cold War.
Baker: Yeah, I think it’s a shame, because a lot of Baker’s critics while he was in office were from the Christian Conservative part of the Republican Party, but he was very religious himself. His wife Susan, a second wife, in particular. He used to joke that the first sound he would hear in the morning was the thump thump of his wife’s knees hitting the floor to pray after waking up in the morning. And he himself read from the Runner’s Bible every day; it was a source of inspiration for him. But he didn’t talk about it a lot. He didn’t believe in a public form of religion. It’s sort of, as you say, the WASP-y kind of approach to faith. Rather than wearing it on your sleeve, it informs your life and informs your actions. But it’s not something that Baker ever felt the need to advertise in a broad sense, but it certainly, obviously, played an important role in shaping how he looked at politics and policy. And I think that you’re right that he would say that you don’t lose principle by making compromise; that you can, in fact, adhere to the things that brought you to the table while finding a way to work with somebody who you disagree with.
Tooley: And as you have noted, unlike the Bush family, Baker supported Donald Trump twice in his runs for the presidency. He was not a fan or supporter, was not even sure of his mental stability, but believed in being an insider and supporting the party.
Baker: Yeah, it’s interesting because you’re right, because of his friendship with Bush, you might expect Baker to say no, I’m not going to support Trump. Bush didn’t, and maybe nobody would have questioned that because everybody knows how close Baker and Bush were. But he didn’t take the same course. And we were very curious about that. In the course of, we wrote this book over the course of seven years, and for several of those years, this topic had coming up in almost every interview. Every time we sat down with him, you would ask him about Trump or he would bring Trump up more likely, and you’re right, he didn’t think much of Trump. He would use words like “nuts,” “crazy,” you know, Trump is the anti-Baker in so many ways. He’s not really a believer in public service, certainly not a believer in compromise, and went against some of the things that Baker himself accomplished like free trade and alliances that were so important to Baker. But you’re right, in the end, he voted for him not once but twice. And what he told us again and again is look, in the end, I’m still a Republican, even if my party has left me. And I think it says something about the broader nature of our politics today, that we really are tribal in our affiliations. If our side may have somebody we don’t agree with, but it’s still our side and it’s better than joining the other side. I think that Baker stuck with his side, his tribe, even though he was deeply disturbed by the leader of that tribe.
Tooley: History possibly could have been different if Baker had gotten his wish and become National Security Advisor under Ronald Reagan, and conservatives in the administration, Weinberger, Bill Casey, Jeane Kirkpatrick, organized against that, believing he would be from their perspective “squishy” on national security issues. Almost certainly the Iran-Contra affair would not have happened had he been National Security Advisor. Did he ever reflect on what could have been?
Baker: Oh yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And I think you’re right about that. You’re not the only one that thinks that. Nancy Reagan thought that too, for instance. Michael Deaver thought that. Both of them said that had Baker been National Security Advisor, as he hoped to be in 1983, that there’s no way he would have put up with the shenanigans that led to the biggest crisis of Reagan’s second term. And, in fact, by the time he left, he went to be Treasury Secretary in the second term, and he was sort of cut out by John Poindexter, and Oliver North, and Robert McFarlane, and all the people who were intimately involved with Iran-Contra. And when you discover what happened when it all became public, Poindexter, who was a National Security Advisor at the time, apologized to Baker saying, “I’m sorry I cut you out.” And Baker said, “Hey, you gave me the biggest favor ever.” He was very happy not to have anything to do with it. But it was a big consequence because you’re right about that, he was a believer in a steady ship and he never would have seen the kind of extralegal conduct there to be acceptable. In fact, he said even during the first term, “Be careful of violating the law here. If you organize money for the Contras, for instance, outside of what the Congress has approved, you’re very likely to draw an impeachment charge.” He warned people in that White House against straying too far across the line. They just didn’t listen.
Tooley: Baker, of course, played a major role in George W. Bush’s successful first election in that he helped to mediate, or govern, how the Florida recount was handled in 2000. Did Baker play in a subsequent to that role for George W. Bush?
Baker: Not a whole lot. I mean, Bush, the second Bush, wanted his administration not to be seen as a duplicate or continuation of his father’s presidency, so he largely kept people like Baker at arm’s length. Cheney, as his Vice President, was the one real exception to that. So, Baker was on the sidelines, and like other veterans of the first Bush Administration, troubled by the desire to go into Iraq for instance in 2003. Like Brent Scowcroft, he wrote an op-ed warning President Bush not to do it, but he wrote in a way that was less confrontational than Brent Scowcroft. And so, he didn’t end up alienating Bush. So, by the time, in fact, things do go badly in Iraq and Bush 43 is thinking about getting rid of Don Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, the person he actually thinks about replacing him with is Jim Baker. And he comes to Baker basically and says, “Would you be my Secretary of Defense?”, and at this point in his life, Baker was I think 75 or 76 years old, he says, “Now, I’m too old to do it. I’ve already been in charge of three cabinet departments. I don’t need to do this.” What he was really thinking, although he didn’t say at the time, was he just thought Iraq was such a mess and he didn’t want to be part of it. He really didn’t want to be in a position where he thought he would be fighting with his friend Dick Cheney in the months and years to come over what to do in Iraq. And he rightly saw that he and Cheney were on very different sides when it came to that war, and he cherishes his friendship with Cheney. They’re still friends to this day, even though they have a very big disagreement about that.
Tooley: What did James Baker believe his most important legacy is, and what do you think his most important legacy is?
Baker: Well, I used to joke, of course, his biggest legacy was being able to serve in Washington at the highest levels for a dozen years and get out without being indicted, which I think says something about the nature of Washington. But if you ask him, I think he cares most about the time he was Secretary of State. He really wanted to be a statesman. He didn’t want to be a fixer anymore, which is why he was so upset when Bush 41 asked him to give up State Department and come back to the White House in 1992 to run his ultimately failed reelection campaign. Baker didn’t want to be a fixer; he didn’t want to be an operative anymore. He wanted to be doing big things on the world stage, and he did. He helped, again, reunify Germany, one of the biggest achievements of the post-Cold War era. Obviously, he helped manage the end of the Soviet empire without great violence or disruption in the world around us. He managed to pull together a coalition to fight the first Gulf War against Iraq that included Arabs, like the Egyptians and the Syrians. And he managed, again, to bring the Israelis and Arabs together in Madrid for the first time. Even though it didn’t lead to a peace treaty, ultimately, you could say that paved the way for future progress, like the Oslo Accords. So, I think that what Baker would say is those are the things he cared about the most, the things he takes most pride in.
Tooley: Do you have a copy of the book besides you?
Baker: I don’t actually. Isn’t that crazy? I should. There you go. Thank goodness somebody does.
Tooley: Peter Baker, author of The Man Who Ran Washington, a wonderful new biography of James Baker, thank you so much for a very enjoyable conversation.
Baker: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.