A recent biography of James A. Baker III ’52, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, is titled The Man Who Ran Washington. For nearly two generations, Baker did just that, and more — as campaign manager for Gerald Ford, treasury secretary for Ronald Reagan, secretary of state for George H.W. Bush, White House chief of staff for both Reagan and Bush, and in numerous other roles.
Baker, who will turn 91 April 28, spoke with PAW in March from his home in Houston and looked back at a Republican Party, a country, and a world he did much to shape.
What have you been doing recently?
Turkey season begins this weekend, so I’m going to go out hunting again. I just got back from Augusta [National Golf Club], where I stayed in what is called the George P. Shultz [’42] room. And I actually played 31 holes of golf. I didn’t shoot worth a damn, but at least I was still out there at nearly 91 years of age.
George invited a group of us to play at Augusta one time when I was in the Reagan administration. It was George, [then-Sen.] Dan Quayle, [White House chief of staff ] Don Regan, and me. And I didn’t know that there is a rule at Augusta that you don’t wear shorts. So I wore shorts the entire weekend, but because I was treasury secretary at the time, nobody said a word. After it was over I said, “George, why didn’t you tell me?!”
George and I were quite close. During Ronald Reagan’s first term, he had my back and I had his back, because we were both accused of being a little too “centrist” for some of the Gipper’s more radical ideologues. So we found ourselves on the same side of many issues.
I tell people that George Shultz was my role model. He went to Princeton and I went to Princeton. He went into the Marine Corps and I went into the Marine Corps. He became treasury secretary and I became treasury secretary. He became secretary of state and I became secretary of state. But when it came to having a Princeton tiger tattooed on my butt, I drew the line.
Secretary Shultz was always coy about whether he actually had that tiger tattoo. Can you confirm or refute that story?
I am quite sure that he had a tiger tattooed on his butt, although I must confess that I never actually saw it with my own eyes. Which is a good thing.
Some have said that our politics has never been as dysfunctional as it is today. Do you agree, and how do we fix it?
I definitely agree. Our government does not do the people’s business the way we used to. The founders laid out a system that calls for consultation, conciliation, and compromise to get things done. When you get things done on a bipartisan basis, they last. Executive orders last only until the other party takes power again. I’m proud that in the Reagan and Bush administrations, we got a lot of things done in a bipartisan way, such as Social Security reform in 1983 and tax reform in 1986. We got the leadership in both parties on board.
As for what the solution is, I’m not sure. The country is pretty evenly split between the parties. Members of the press are no longer objective reporters of the facts; they’re players. You also have the internet and social media where people can throw whatever they want to at the wall and see what sticks. Then you have partisan redistricting. The result of all of this is that the responsible center of American politics has disappeared. That is where we used to govern from, but it’s gone.
The other big problem I think we face is a ticking fiscal debt bomb. That used to be a big issue and, by golly, it’s going to become a big issue again when interest rates rise — and they’re going to rise — because we owe an inordinate amount of money to countries like China and Japan. I thought President Obama had a good solution when he created the Simpson-Bowles Commission [the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, in 2010] but then he disregarded its findings. Republicans would agree to revenue increases and Democrats would agree to spending restraint. But I’m not sure that the political will is there to do that anymore. So what do I think is going to happen? I hate to say it, but I think we’re going to inflate our way out of our debt problem.
“The responsible center of American politics has disappeared. That is where we used to govern from, but it’s gone.” — James A. Baker III ’52
You have seen a lot of different presidents. What are the secrets to successful presidential leadership?
A commitment to lead is number one. And that means making the hard choices to go with appropriate policy responses even if they aren’t politically expedient. I think about Jerry Ford, the first president I worked for. He knew that one of the most important things he had to do was to heal the deep wounds that had been caused by Watergate, so he pardoned Richard Nixon. That was a very difficult thing to do politically and I think it cost him the election in 1976, but it was the right thing to do for the country.
I worked for the Gipper for eight years, and in my view he demonstrated substantial leadership qualities. He was not involved in the nuances of government, but he was totally involved in the big picture. He had a view of what America’s role domestically and internationally should be, and he was an optimist. He restored America’s pride and confidence in itself.
Lastly, I worked for George H.W. Bush, who was a great leader, particularly in foreign policy. He presided over a peaceful end to the Cold War. He ended the wars in Central America. He supported the unification of Germany as a member of the NATO alliance, which was accomplished over the objections of our allies, Britain and France. And finally, the way he liberated Kuwait was the textbook example of how to fight a war. You tell people what you’re going to do, you go out and get the rest of the world with you, you get the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force, you do exactly what you said you were going to do, you bring the troops home, and then you get other countries to pay for 90 percent of it.
What is America’s role in the post-Cold War world?
America needs to remain involved on the world stage. I’m not a fan of all this isolationism and protectionism that we saw under the Trump administration. We had that experience after World War I, and look what it brought us: World War II. It’s important that America remain involved with the rest of the world because when we are, we are generally a force for peace and stability. And when we are not involved, vacuums arise that are filled by people whose principles and values are not the same as America’s.
A number of conservatives, such as George F. Will [*68], have left the Republican Party. Are you still a proud Republican?
I believe in the values and principles that have historically guided the Republican Party. I believe in limited government and lower taxes, because that produces economic growth and creates jobs. I believe in a strong national defense. But I have to say that, to a large extent over the last four years, my party has left me. I’m not in favor of a lot of the protectionism and isolationism we have seen. The presidents I served didn’t govern in the same way that the last Republican president governed. So I had problem with that.
Did you vote for President Trump last year?
Yeah, I did. I held my nose and did it. Here’s what I liked: I voted for him because I liked the judicial appointments he was making. I think it’s extremely important to have a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. I liked that fact that he eliminated a lot of unnecessary regulations. But I was not a fan of his trade policies or the way in which he governed. On balance, though, I thought it was more important that the Republicans controlled the executive branch of government even though he wasn’t my kind of Republican. So much of the business of government is done below the level of the president, in agencies like the National Labor Relations Board or the SEC.
What advice would you give to young people getting involved in government?
I would strongly advise them to make sure they know a good lawyer. Because you spend a lot of your time at the upper levels, where I was, having to talk to the FBI because of some claim against someone else in the administration or something like that. I would also tell them to be extraordinarily careful to comply with all of the ethical requirements. Because unfortunately, the political class has discovered that one of the best ways to win office is to get your opponent indicted. I’ve seen so many people go up there who had sterling records and accomplishments in the private sector who get caught up in the confirmation process and get killed.
Still, this is by far and away the finest country in the world. I think it’s obligatory for all of us to give back to it to the extent we can. There is a great sense of satisfaction that comes from being able to give back to your country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.