James Baker has been a Houston lawyer, a presidential campaign manager, and a White House Cabinet secretary. At the age of 84, he’s not done yet.
James A. Baker III has seen it all. The Houston lawyer didn’t get involved in politics until he was 40, but since that time he has commanded the national and international stage like few others: running five presidential campaigns (one apiece for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and three for George H. W. Bush) and serving as White House chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of State, and all-around political fixer. A new documentary about his remarkable career, James Baker: The Man Who Made Washington Work, premieres on PBS on March 24.
Brian D. Sweany: Mr. Secretary, the subtitle of the documentary is The Man Who Made Washington Work, which makes me wonder how you think Washington is working today.
James Baker: It’s not working the way it used to. We used to get together across the aisle and work on a bipartisan basis to get things done for the country. Today that doesn’t happen, and in my view, it’s quite regrettable.
BDS: What has changed?
JB: Redistricting, of course. If you come from a state that’s dominated by Democrats, the districts are all left-leaning. If you come from a state that’s dominated by Republicans, it’s all Republican districts. That means that the center is disappearing, and the center, in my experience, is where you primarily govern from. Without a center, it’s harder to do the public’s business.
Another thing that’s happening is that our congressmen in Washington today, they’re never there except between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon. They don’t bring their families there, they don’t live up there for extended periods of time, and so they don’t socialize with their colleagues from the opposite party. There’s no personal interaction the way there used to be. And I think this makes it much more difficult for the parties to get together and get things done.
And I don’t mean to point fingers at your profession, but when I was trying to get things done for the American people, the press were at least trying to report on events reasonably and objectively. They were observers, not players. Today the press are players. If you tune in to MSNBC, you’d think you were listening to the house organ of the Democratic party. If you tune in to Fox, you know you’re listening to the house organ of the Republican party. That makes for good ratings, but it doesn’t make for good governance.
BDS: I worry that there is a vicious cycle; redistricting pushes candidates from both parties farther and farther to the edges of their party. In doing so the middle, as you say, becomes disaffected with politics and doesn’t vote, which then makes the votes of those people on the fringes of both of their parties far more powerful. Is that a fair theory?
JB: Well, I think that’s very fair, and I would add one thing: that the primaries are where the action is because of this and more so than the general election. And so you end up electing people who are much more ideologically oriented to the left or right, and the center disappears once they get up there. It’s very difficult.
BDS: We recently had big news in Washington with the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I was watching Face the Nation that week, and your picture popped up on the screen, along with a statement you had made. What were your thoughts on that?
JB: John Boehner is the speaker of the House, a co-equal branch of government. He has every right in the world to invite whoever he wants to come address the House. On the other hand, you don’t want to see the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is such an important security relationship, you don’t want to see it totally dominated by politics. There’s an important foreign policy component here that is extremely important to both Israel and the United States, and it ought not to be turned into a pure political football. That’s one thing. Another thing I would say is that I’m a creature of the executive branch. I worked for Gerald Ford, I worked for Ronald Reagan, I worked for George H.W. Bush. I did some things for George W. Bush. I know, as a lawyer and as a creature of the executive branch, that the Constitution vests the president of the United States with the primary power and responsibility and authority to conduct the nation’s foreign policy, and you can’t conduct foreign policy with 535 secretaries of state. So, I don’t see what the rush is here, what the crisis is. I do believe that if a deal is made with Iran, I really do believe that it needs to be submitted to the Congress for review and perhaps approval. I don’t have this idea that this would not be a treaty and so you don’t submit it and the Congress gets no say in it. I don’t agree with that because this is an exceedingly important item.
One other thing, though, on the other side of the coin, is that the nuclear nonproliferation treaty gives Iran the right to enrich for peaceful purposes. And as I understand it, the prime minister of Israel’s argument is that we can’t let Iran even enrich. But my view is we can’t let Iran weaponize. That’s what we, I think, ought to be seeking to prevent. We have the same goals, the United States and Israel—at least I thought they were the same goals—that we don’t want them to weaponize. And we have different, maybe different views of how we ought to get there. I think we should be allowed to proceed in a way that our leaders think is the right way to proceed to achieve that goal of not letting Iran get the bomb and not have to proceed in a way that some other country thinks we have to proceed. And let me lastly say this. There will never come a time when the United States of America—under either Republican leadership or Democratic leadership—will not be there for Israel’s security. We’re gonna be there for Israel’s security. Will we have different views and ideas from time to time about how best to protect that security and what’s best for us and them? Yeah, there’ll be some differences from time to time. But we’re gonna be there for Israel’s security and that’s really not at risk.
BDS: You are still involved in national politics, and given your close association with the Bush family, I wonder about your connection to Jeb, who appears committed to running for president in 2016.
JB: I will certainly help him if he wants me to. He’s extraordinarily qualified, and I think he would make an extremely good president. I think it’s going to be a Republican year—and it should be a Republican year. People want to see change.
BDS: The documentary reminded me that you got your start in politics because of George H. W. Bush. You ran his Senate campaign against Lloyd Bentsen, in 1970. In fact, you say in the documentary that, at that point in your life, you didn’t know “a damn thing about politics.”
JB: That’s absolutely true. I had no idea whatsoever that I would ever be involved in politics or public service. All I intended to do was be a first-rate lawyer with a big law firm here in Houston. After my first wife died, my friend and tennis doubles partner George Bush came to me and said, “Bake, you need to take your mind off your grief and help me run for the Senate.” I told him, “George, that’s a great idea except for two things: Number one, I don’t know anything about politics. Number two, I’m a Democrat.”
BDS: So you switched parties and the rest is history.
JB: That’s right. Of course, I was a conservative Democrat, and back in those days, the dividing line in Texas politics was between conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats. Being a Republican in those days was a hanging offense. There weren’t any Republican office holders, if you remember.
BDS: Speaking of that split, Bentsen, a conservative Democrat, had beaten Ralph Yarborough, a liberal, in the primary. Bush had expected to run against Yarborough.
JB: Absolutely right. In those days a Republican had no chance whatsoever statewide, unless he or she was paired against a liberal Democrat. I had the same experience when I ran for attorney general, in 1978. I filed expecting to run against Price Daniel, a liberal, but he got knocked off by Mark White, the Democrat who went on to beat me [and eventually serve as the governor of Texas]. Anyway, losing that race was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve told Mark, “You did me the best favor anybody ever has. If you hadn’t beat me in that race, I might never have had the opportunity to go and do the things I was able to do up in D.C.”
BDS: You were never tempted to run again?
JB: No. We thought about running for president in ’96. I had a high name ID in the country, maybe up in the eighties or something, and I had good approval/disapproval numbers, and I sure knew the job. I had worked for these presidents right at their right hand, but I was worn-out-tired. My wife and I, we talked about it, we looked at it carefully. But I had done five presidential campaigns. I’d done four years as White House chief of staff, four years as Treasury Secretary, and four years as Secretary of State, and I was absolutely worn-out and, you know, interspaced in between those were the political campaigns, and they take a lot out of you too.
BDS: Did you ever get discouraged in those early days? Bush lost to Bentsen; you ran Gerald Ford’s campaign, in 1976, and he lost; and you lost the AG’s race in 1978.
JB: Well, I tell people this: I’ve run five presidential campaigns. Nobody’s ever done that, and I argue that three of them were winners and two were losers. Technically, two of them were winners and three of them were losers, but I claim that the 1980 race got Bush on the ticket as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. I count that as a win, and I suppose he does today too. I’m not sure that he always did.
BDS: The 1980 race featured Reagan casting himself as the true conservative and Bush as the moderate. That sounds familiar today.
JB: I can’t tell you how many times I would be in the Oval Office with President Reagan, and he would say, “Jim, I’d rather get eighty percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.” That’s not the picture that people painted of him. They painted a picture of him as a hard-line conservative ideologue who would refuse to compromise. Well, I want to tell you, that was not Ronald Reagan, and that’s one reason, in my view, that his legacy is as good as it is today. That’s a lesson today’s politicians should be mindful of.
BDS: What stands out to you about your time in the Reagan White House, if you can distill it into one or two things?
JB: Ronald Reagan really was an incredible and beautiful human being. He was loyalty up, loyalty down. He was hope and optimism all wrapped up in one. And that was one of the reasons, I think, for his success. I remember so many really divisive meetings. I’ve gotta tell you, the Reagan White House in the first term was oftentimes not a pretty place to be because it was so much controversy and there were significant differences between two sides of the White House, but all of that operated, and I think to Reagan’s benefit—and he was smart enough to know that. He wanted the views of everybody, and I remember so many meetings that were divisive, but the way Reagan handled them, the party who lost never felt like he or she hadn’t been given a full shot. It was really a wonderful experience and almost amazing. I don’t think it’s gonna happen again in American politics, where a president-elect will ask the campaign manager of two opponents of his to be his White House chief of staff. But they wanted somebody who knew Washington and who knew how things operated up there.
BDS: You said that President Reagan wanted somebody who understood how Washington worked and understood how power worked, but again you had come to politics relatively late in your career. How do you explain how you knew how to get things done?
JB: I think that politics is a number of things. First of all, you have to have good people skills. You also have to understand that you need to be decisive. You need to make decisions within a discrete time frame, and in today’s politics that time frame is shortened a whole lot more than it used to be. But you’ve gotta be decisive and you can’t be indecisive. You’ve got to be prepared. If you read my book, you know that I was raised by a father and mother who drilled into me the work ethic and the importance of succeeding and they constantly told me, “Jimmy, you have a legacy to live up to. Your grandfather and your father have been prominent lawyers and very successful lawyers in Houston. The firm has been very successful. You have a real legacy to live up to.” My dad used to say, you should never forget that prior preparation prevents poor performance. Don’t ever wing anything. I know a lot of people in D.C. who would go on, sometimes go on, these Sunday shows and just wing it, and I never did that. Sometimes my staff would complain. I’d have them in on a Saturday afternoon briefing me for what we thought might be the questions the next morning. Politics is nitty-gritty. It’s crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. Now, I’m talking about electoral politics. But it’s the same in governance when you’re talking about getting stuff through the Congress. We judge our presidents by what, by how much of their philosophy and programs they can enact into law, get through the Congress. And some of the same traits that promote success in politics promotes success in governance. Politics and public service are really just two sides of the same coin, and politics is how we get vested with the authority to practice public policy.
BDS: At the time of the 1988 presidential race, what was your relationship like with vice president Bush?
JB: When Reagan asked me to be his chief of staff, I had been the campaign chairman for “the enemy” [George H.W. Bush]. And I knew it was incumbent upon me to prove my bona fides to the Reagan people and to show that I knew where my loyalty lay, and I was very careful about that. In fact, I recount a mention of when Reagan was shot in March after we’d moved in in ’81 and I talked to [White House counselor Edwin] Meese and [political adviser Lyn] Nofziger in the closet in the hospital where Reagan was undergoing treatment and said that I didn’t think we ought to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which is the amendment that says the vice president should take over. And one of the reasons I did that, one of the reasons that I felt that way—and by the way I got a lot of grief about that later on from commentators—was that I didn’t think it’d go down very well if George Bush’s former campaign chairman gave power to George Bush. And he also felt that way but he didn’t have any say in it. He was just the vice president. So we made the decision right there in that broom closet that we weren’t going to institute the procedures to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Bush himself was sensitive about this when his airplane landed in Andrews, and they put him on a chopper and said, “We’ll take you to the South Lawn, where you can go right to the Situation Room.” He said, “No, no, I’m not gonna land on the South Lawn. That’s where the president lands.” So we had all of those forces in play at that time. George has said that our relationship is one of big brother to little brother, and I really like that because I feel very honored that he would characterize me as his little brother. But once I became the White House chief of staff, I was in a position to help him because I was in a more powerful position than he was and I made sure that he had the office in the West Wing there that I think [Walter] Mondale had had. I made sure that he had a weekly lunch with the president. I was in a position to make sure that he was included in meetings that the vice president should be included in. And so it was a case of little brother being able to repay big brother in fairly important ways. You know, he and I go back a long, long way. We were tennis doubles partners, we competed together, and he has often said, “The one thing I like about Jim Baker is he’ll tell me what he thinks, even if he knows I don’t want to hear it.” And I like that, and that’s really quite a compliment. But the way that would play itself out is we would have these arguments, and finally, after we’d been going back and forth for a while, finally he’d look at me and he’d say, “Baker, if you’re so goddamn smart, why am I vice president and you’re not?” I knew that’s when the conversation was over.
BDS: Do you recall any conversations you had with him in the run up to the ’88 race and during that election about him being ready to become president?
JB: I went to Mackinac Island, where there’s an annual event, and there were a bunch of people there, and every seat was filled with “Kemp for President” posters, and this was probably late ’86 or early ’87. And I came home and I walked into his office—he had the office next door to me in the West Wing—and I said, “Hey, we need to talk about this. You ought to get Barbara to come down here and let’s visit.” And so she came down and I told them. I said, “You better be thinking about how you’re gonna be gearing up and so forth, because here’s what I saw at Mackinac.” There was never any idea in my mind that he wouldn’t run in ’88. And I knew I would probably be drafted for that effort, and when he asked me to resign as Treasury Secretary and run the campaign, I said, “That’s fine, George, I’m prepared to do it, but of course you need to talk to the president.” No, here’s the way it worked, wait a minute. He asked me if I would do it and I said—I think this is the way it worked—I said, “Sure, I’ll do it, but I’ve got to talk to the president.” And I went to the president and I said, “Mr. President, the vice president wants me to run his campaign for president.” And President Reagan looked at me—and this was the surprise to me—he said, “Well, Jim, I think you’d be more valuable to him keeping the economy on an even keel, staying here with the economy.” And so I went back to the vice president and I said, “Hey, pal, I broke my neck in there, and if this is gonna happen, you’re gonna have to talk to the president.” And he did and we had a meeting up in the residence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in which, after George made his pitch, President Reagan said, “Well, George, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll do.” And I don’t know why there was that reluctance. I think that maybe the president honestly believed that the most important thing would be the economy. But I think he was being cheered on a little bit by his wife. She’s the reason that I was in the White House. She’s one of the reasons that Ronald Reagan was president, I can tell you that. She was his political protector. She had a very sharp political antenna, particularly for personnel. She knew who might be loyal and who might want to paddle their own canoe.
BDS: You’re saying she vouched for you to be named chief of staff.
JB: She was the one who pushed it more than anybody else. They had seen Ed [Meese, who went on to become Reagan’s attorney general], when he was chief of staff for Reagan in California, not follow through on things, and so they wanted somebody who was nuts and bolts oriented. And particularly somebody who knew Washington.
BDS: Of all the positions that you have held, is it fair to say that your tenure as Secretary of State was the most rewarding for you under President Bush?
JB: Probably so, because the world changed in my four years, and we were able to achieve some really significant things. I will say this, that being Secretary of the Treasury was a joy after being White House chief of staff. White House chief of staff is the worst job in government. You may be the second-most-powerful person in Washington, but you are staff, and the minute you forget that, you’ll be unsuccessful. People who’ve been executives are not good for White House chief of staff. Don Regan, who had been a very good Treasury Secretary, he wanted the power and he wanted to trade jobs with me. And once we traded them he, as Nancy Reagan wrote in her book, he liked the title chief of staff but mostly he liked the chief and not the staff. That’s the toughest job, one of the toughest jobs in government. I was really worn-out after four years. When the president first asked me to take it, I suggested that it would best be done in two-year increments, because I’d been up there and I’d worked with chiefs of staff and I knew what was involved.
I tell people that at that time I was the longest-serving chief of staff in history who had not gone to jail when he left the job. And I tell people that leaving to become Secretary of Treasury is a better way to get out than going to jail. Doonesbury did a cartoon after I left and went over to the Treasury. And it said something like, “Jim Baker was born in a log cabin in Houston, Texas,” blah, blah, blah, blah, and all this stuff. “But his biggest achievement in Washington was that he’d been White House chief of staff for four years and never been indicted.”
BDS: Let’s jump to your role as Secretary of State. The world definitely changed. We had the ending of the Cold War, one of the most transformative moments of the twentieth century. But then hot on the heels of that, we have something that dominates American and international headlines going forward, which is serious conflict in the Middle East. You make the case in the documentary that living up to our security agreements in Kuwait was important because we were now down to a one-superpower world. I wonder if you could talk a little bit on your thoughts on the fall of the Soviet Union and what that meant and then transitioning very quickly into another foreign policy crisis in the Middle East.
JB: Well, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism and the ultimate implosion of the Soviet Union were cataclysmic events. The world I had known my entire adult life changed. We had been engaged in a determined and lengthy struggle for forty-plus years, and it was over. And so how we handled things after that was extremely important. George Bush deserves a hell of a lot of credit for understanding that; again he was criticized up one side and down the other for refusing to dance on the wall when the wall came down. He was criticized—“You’re not showing enough emotion.” Well, he didn’t want to be triumphant. He didn’t want to be victorious-sounding because he knew we still had a lot of business to do with Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, with whom I was so close. Iraq was a Soviet client state, and we got the Soviet Union to vote for a use-of-force resolution in the UN Security Council against a Soviet client state. That had never happened before. It hadn’t happened before and it’s not going to happen again for a long, long time. We ended up ejecting Iraq from Kuwait, and what I say in the documentary is that it was a textbook example of the way to fight a war. Tell people what you’re gonna do. You get the rest of the world behind you to do it. You get a recalcitrant Congress, both houses of which were controlled by the opposite party, to support it, and you go about it, do it the way you said you were gonna do it. And then you get other people to pay for it. Now, how the hell are you gonna fight a war any better than that? And you know, we got one hell of a lot of grief in the aftermath of that because a lot of hard-line-conservative sources were saying, “Why didn’t you guys take care of Saddam when you had a chance? Go to Baghdad!” Well, now you see why we didn’t go to Baghdad. Because we were afraid that this very thing would happen. And so we took advantage of the fact that we had defeated Arab rejectionism in the Gulf and we put together the Madrid Peace Conference. The first time ever that all of Israel’s Arab neighbors were brought together to sit down at the peace table and talk peace with Israel, which constituted the Arab states’ recognition of Israel’s right to exist. And it was a significant achievement. And so we had all of those. We had the end of apartheid in South Africa on our watch. We had the end of the wars in Central America, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. There were just a lot of things happening because the chess board had been turned upside down by virtue of the collapse of Communism.
BDS: We are still obviously living with a long and protracted conflict in the Middle East. What did we learn about our role in the Middle East? What did we learn about the right way to bring about change and perhaps the wrong way, given that we have been over there now for such an extended period of time?
JB: Well, you can’t impose. First of all, we know freedom is the way. That’s the best way for people to live. Everybody desires freedom. Everybody wants it and democracy goes right along with that, although freedom is much broader. But you can’t impose either one of them at the barrel of a gun, in my view. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t stand up when you have an egregious situation like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which put at risk all of the energy reserves in the Persian Gulf and is something that every administration I ever served in—Ford, two Reagan, and one Bush—we had a written policy that we would go to war to protect free access to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf. And we did in the first Gulf War. But then the second Gulf war was a war of choice. We did it because we thought that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or was acquiring them. And it was bad intelligence. One of the reasons we didn’t go to Baghdad was because we were worried about the breakup of that big Arab country, we were worried about how we would run that big Arab country after we conquered it. And we now see all this ethnic division and the Shia/Sunni divide. And the Shia/Sunni divide is not now just in Iraq, it’s all over the Middle East.
One thing I firmly believe is that the United States is a force for good. When we are involved internationally, we’re a force for good. We’re not out there looking to mess up somebody else’s sandbox or take any land or anything from other people. But our involvement has to be wide and it has to run the gamut; it has to be economic, political, and military. We must be very judicious in the use of our military. After all, you can be heavily involved and not necessarily have boots on the ground. I happen to support President Obama’s decision that we’ve had quite enough American men and women killed on the ground in the Middle East. We don’t need any more of that. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved and that we shouldn’t be creating alliances with all the other Sunni nations, like Turkey and Jordan and UAE and Saudi Arabia, to put boots on the ground while we supply the air and the logistics and the intelligence to take down ISIS. The goal of taking down ISIS is a proper goal, a good goal. But you can’t do it just from the air.
BDS: If President Obama picked up the phone and asked you for your perspective on ISIS, what would you tell him?
JB: I would say what I just told you. Go to these countries that are our natural allies there, the Muslim countries, most of them Sunni countries, and not that you’re taking sides on the Sunni/Shia fight—there are a lot of Shia that want to see ISIS destroyed as well as Sunnis. All the Shia want to see them destroyed. So what I would do, I would go to Turkey, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia, to UAE, maybe one or two other countries over there, and say, “Look, this threat is every bit as big a threat to you as it is to those of us in the West, and if they continue to proliferate, they’re gonna be coming after you because you’re secular and because you’re, in some cases, monarchies. So why don’t you cobble together some ground forces?” Turkey has a huge and very effective army. Oman has a lot of troops, and Saudi Arabia and UAE can supply some, Jordan can supply some. Let’s get together and form a big international coalition. There’s not a country in the world that wouldn’t contribute in some way to a coalition to destroy ISIS. Everybody. We’ll lead the charge, we’ll provide the intelligence and the logistics and the air. You put the boots on the ground. Right now we’re relying on the Iraqi army. That’s where the president says he’s gonna get the boots on the ground. That’s very problematic. Even more problematic is talking about the moderate Syrian opposition. Most of those people are in the salons of London and Paris.
BDS: You met Dick Cheney way back in the Ford administration, and you have remained close for decades. What is your view on the role that he had played in the war on terror?
JB: First of all, I need to tell you that one of the people who was responsible for my being in national politics was Dick Cheney, and he and I are extraordinarily close. I need to give you the history. I was just a low-level undersecretary of Commerce in the Ford administration when Jerry Ford’s delegate hunter got killed in an automobile accident and Ford asked me to take that job. And I did, and Cheney was the White House chief of staff at the time, and that decision would never have been made unless Dick, in my opinion, advised. And then, after the nomination, President Ford asked me to be the chairman of his election committee. Well, that decision was recommended to President Ford by Dick Cheney. Now, having said all that and having told you that we are very good friends and remain so today, I disagree with him on a lot of issues, and he knows that and he disagrees with me. So my view is that it was really problematic that we decided to go to Baghdad. History will tell us one day. If Iraq can develop into a functioning democracy in the Middle East that is not brutalizing its own citizens and is at peace with its neighbors, then the effort might be worth it. Dick is somebody that I have respect for, and he is a very close friend of mine. But we disagree on a number of policy issues.
BDS: My last question: You may be getting to the age, Mr. Secretary, where you’re thinking about your legacy. You have this unbelievable record of public service at the absolute highest levels, you also have Baker Botts in Houston. You have the Baker Institute at Rice University. When you look on those things is there something that stands out to you, that you are particularly proud of, or that you hope to see continuing on into the future?
JB: I’m really proud of the Baker Institute. We’ve only been there for 21 years, I think, and the rankings—they rank policy institutes every year—and the new rankings just came out in January and the Baker Institute, get this, is ranked number four. Of all energy think tanks in the world. I mean, how can that happen? We’re ranked number eighteen of all think tanks—not energy, all think tanks—in the United States. We’re ahead of Hoover. We’re ahead of Urban Institute. We’re ahead of the Institute of Peace. And among university-affiliated think tanks, we rank number nine. That’s globally.
As long as the namesake is alive, you can bring a lot of prominent people to speak there. We’ve had everybody from Gorbachev and Putin and Mandela and Clinton. You name it. We’ve had them there. And that helps you in the public policy echo chamber get a little visibility and so forth. But public policy institutes are really judged, Brian, on the basis of their scholarship. You have to turn out good scholarship, and we do, and one reason is because we’re affiliated with an extraordinarily fine university.