The extraordinary life of James Baker

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019
The extraordinary life of James Baker
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James Baker III served under three presidents as White House Chief of Staff, Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State.

Knowing how to work across political aisles is something that James Baker III is known for.

His legendary career in Washington spanned a quarter century, working in top posts for Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush.

"Not only did Reagan have a Democratic House with Tip O'Neill, who was quite an adversarial Democrat and with whom we were able to work, but George H.W. Bush had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate for all four years of his term." said Baker. "And we got things done."

Twice, he served as White House Chief of Staff, as well as Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. But politics wasn't always Baker's ambition.

As a young lawyer working in Houston, he was encouraged to enter the political fray by his tennis partner, George H.W. Bush.

"When I first moved back to Houston from law school in the late 1950s and he moved to Houston from Midland, neither of us had a tennis doubles partner," said Baker. "That's how we got to know each other. He was my best friend for 60 years."

It was George Bush who encouraged him to run Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign. Then he ran Bush's own presidential campaign in 1980. Though his longtime friend lost that year, both Bush and Baker unexpectedly ended up in the White House.

"That was just a testament to the broad gauge nature of Ronald Reagan," said Baker. "He had the wisdom and the good sense to go to someone who ended up being an absolutely perfect Vice President for him. Reagan didn't want to pick Bush because that primary had been very, very tough."

Baker admits he was surprised when President Reagan asked him to be Chief of Staff.

"You could have picked me up off the floor with a blotter, that he would go to someone who managed two campaigns against him and make him his White House Chief," said Baker. "Probably will never happen again in American politics."

As Secretary of State, Baker won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts to end the Gulf War.

As Treasury Secretary, he played a crucial role in passing one of the most sweeping tax reform packages in U.S. history. It was a historic achievement, despite a divided Congress.

"Washington worked back then," said Baker. "We sent people up there with the will and the desire to do the people's business. We don't have that anymore."

He says it was a far different political climate from what we see today.

"We are politically dysfunctional today in the United States and that's one of the biggest threats facing our country," said Baker. "The responsible center in American politics is disappearing. There's another factor though, that we ought to all be aware of, and that's the freedom of the press. Today, the press are not objective reporters of the facts, they are players. That's not good for our democracy. And we now have the Internet, which permits anybody anonymously to throw the wildest allegations and charges up there and see who salutes it."

It's a sentiment echoed in his historic conversation with President Obama late last year at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

"When you start getting dysfunction in Washington in which it's difficult for decisions to get made, that doesn't just weaken our influence," said President Obama during the event. "It provides opportunities for disorder to start ramping up all around the world."

The star-studded event raised nearly $5.5 million for the institute founded in Baker's name. The nonpartisan think tank just celebrated its 25th anniversary, providing data-driven research on some of the nation's most pressing policy issues.

"We've been a successful beyond our wildest expectations," said Baker. "We had no idea that the institute would thrive the way it has. If we're successful in the next 25 years as we've been in the first 25 years, I would be ecstatic."