top of page
  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": James A. Baker III

James Addison Baker III became the consummate Washington, DC, fixer. He was the man that presidents and statesmen looked to when they needed assistance in running a campaign, managing a federal agency, or negotiating a sensitive foreign policy crisis. During a long and distinguished career, Baker served as the White House chief of staff in two presidential administrations, secretary of the treasury, and secretary of state. He developed a reputation as an unflappable man of integrity and professionalism. I discuss Baker in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement."

He was born on April 28, 1930, in Houston, Texas. His father, James A. Baker Jr., was a partner in Baker Botts, a prestigious law firm where his own father had been a partner during the nineteenth century. The Bakers were lawyers and politicians across four generations.

As a child of privilege, James III attended the finest schools available to him, first the Kinkaid School in Houston, and later the Hill Street School, a prominent preparatory boarding school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that was widely regarded as a feeder for Princeton University. In keeping with that tradition, he enrolled in Princeton in 1948, graduating in 1952.

Following college graduation, Baker served in the United States Marine Corps for two years. It was the era of the Korean War, and he achieved the rank of first lieutenant. As a naval gunfire officer, he served aboard the USS Monrovia, a Crescent City transport ship stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. Although he left active duty in 1954, Baker remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1958. He eventually became a captain.

After he left active duty in the Marine Corps, Baker enrolled in the University of Texas Law School. He earned a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) in 1957. He then spent the next 18 years practicing law with Andrews & Kurth, an international law firm in Houston. Baker had been affiliated with the Democratic Party in earlier years, but he insisted that he was apolitical during his years practicing law.

Baker eventually became a Republican thanks to his wife, Mary Stuart McHenry (Baker). She was active in Republican politics in Texas, working on several congressional campaigns, including the campaign of George H. W. Bush. After initially resisting her entreaties, Baker eventually became involved in Republican causes.

He befriended Bush when the two men were members of the Houston Country Club during the 1950s. In fact, Baker mulled over running for a Bush’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives when his friend campaigned for a Senate seat in 1970. Baker changed his mind when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in February 1970.

Out of tragedy came a warm friendship with George H. W. Bush. Bush had lost a young daughter to leukemia in 1953. He knew a thing or two about working through grief. Urging his friend to throw himself into politics, Bush took the plunge himself, challenging the incumbent Texas senator, Lloyd Bentsen, in the 1970 election. Bush lost the election, but it was a temporary setback. He had a storied political career ahead of him.

James Baker had served as Bush’s Senate campaign chairman in Harris County in 1970. He, too, had grander political offices in his future. Following Bush’s loss, Baker became finance chair of the Texas Republican Party. By 1972, Baker was President Richard Nixon’s Gulf Coast Regional Chairman. As the Watergate scandal overwhelmed the Nixon administration and the Republican Party in 1974, Baker returned to the private practice of law.

He felt the call of his party in 1975. That August, President Gerald R. Ford, Nixon’s successor, appointed Baker the undersecretary of commerce. Baker served for nine months, eventually resigning to manage Ford’s 1976 reelection campaign. Ford faced a tough campaign. Aside from struggling to address economic “stagflation,” Ford had alienated many voters when he pardoned Richard Nixon for all crimes that he may have committed during the Watergate era. It was clear that the voters sought a change of direction. As a result, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford in November 1976.

To this point, James Baker had worked largely behind the scenes in politics. In 1978, he threw himself into electoral politics by campaigning for a position as the Texas Attorney General. George H.H. Bush was his campaign manager. Baker lost the election.

By the end of the 1970s, Baker was well-regarded within Republican circles for his political acumen. An outsider might have been forgiven for expressing skepticism about the Texan’s fit for politics, however. He had been involved in a series of electoral defeats, and the future seemed no more promising than the past.

Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 changed everything for the national Republican Party, and for James Baker. In retrospect, the political parties in Texas had been realigning for years. Reliably Democratic for close to a century, the state was becoming more Republican and conservative, especially after the Johnson administration pushed for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Baker had tasted defeat innumerable times while this realignment occurred, but the 1980s were a more prosperous time for him. In 1981, Reagan appointed Baker his White House Chief of Staff. It was an unexpected appointment. Baker had not been a Reagan man. He had supported President Ford as well as George H. W. Bush in earlier contests. Reagan was willing to let bygones be bygones as long as Baker pledged fealty to the new administration. The Texan agreed to do so. Baker went on to serve as the chief of staff for Reagan’s first term, stepping down in 1985.

Although virtually everyone who knew Baker believed he was a man of enormous integrity and ability, he faced critics among right wingers within the party. For true believers who urged Reagan to move to the right, James A. Baker III was far too moderate in his policies and disposition. He was a former Democrat as well as a darling of moderate Republicans. This moderation would not do. Accordingly, many conservatives lobbied the president to dismiss his chief of staff well before 1985. Although he was always anxious to demonstrate his conservative bona fides, Reagan resisted the political pressure.

In the meantime, Baker was tired of serving as chief of staff. It was a thankless, exhausting job, requiring the occupant to act as the “bad cop” to President Reagan’s “good cop.” As was the case with many presidential chiefs of staff, Baker became a lightning rod for controversy. He hoped that he could resign the position during Reagan’s second term and take on a new role, perhaps as national security adviser. Conservatives vehemently objected, and Baker’s plan to move to the National Security Council failed.

Despite the reservations against James Baker in some quarters, Reagan retained his faith in the man. It was little wonder that he refused to abandon Baker. During Reagan’s 1984 reelection, Baker managed the campaign. The president handily won reelection with one of the largest victories in American political history. Reagan earned 525 electoral votes out of 538, capturing 58.8 percent of the popular vote to 40.6 percent for his challenger, Democrat Walter Mondale.

Early in 1985, the president was anxious to please Baker, who had done so much to secure the vote. Reagan eventually worked out a plan where Baker and the secretary of the treasury, Donald Regan, traded positions. Both Regan and Baker agreed to the change, which occurred in January and February of the new year.

As treasury secretary, Baker represented the United States in signing to Plaza Accord, a joint agreement between France, West Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States to depreciate the United States dollar in relation to the currency of the other signatories. Signed on September 22, 1985, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, the agreement was designed to manage international debt by intervening in currency markets. Japan was seen as an increasingly important international player in the mid-1980s, and the agreement was supposed to encourage competition among and between U.S. trading partners.

Baker had been integrally involved in operating the Reagan White House during the first term. In the second term, he was a cabinet officer at the center of every major economic decision. As treasury secretary, he served on the National Security Council as well. He remained in the position until he resigned in August 1988 to run the presidential campaign of his old friend from Houston, George H. W. Bush.

Bush was Ronald Reagan’s vice president for eight years, and the heir apparent to the presidency. Yet Bush and Baker knew that vice presidents did not always fare well when they strove for the White House. In fact, no sitting vice president had ascended directly into the presidency since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in the 1836 election. Voters often closely identified a vice president with a president. Even popular presidents became tiresome after eight years, leading some voters to seek a new direction with a fresh-faced candidate.

Vice President Bush faced Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 contest. Dukakis was a progressive governor, an intellectual with a Harvard Law degree, and initially a formidable presidential candidate. In time, his vulnerabilities became all too apparent. He lacked the common touch, as became obvious during a debate with Bush when Dukakis answered a question about the death penalty with no emotion. The debate moderator had asked how he would feel about executing criminals if someone raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis’s wooden response, delivered in a nearly monotone tone of voice, showed little compassion or empathy. It wasn’t the death knell for his campaign, but it cemented his image as a soulless technocrat who was unfit for the presidency.

The Bush camp painted Dukakis as soft on crime and national defense. A salacious advertisement featuring Willie Horton, a Black inmate who was paroled from prison during a Massachusetts early release program, was a racist diatribe, but it worked well to show that Dukakis cared more for coddling criminals than protecting ordinary (white) folks from violent felons. Dukakis did himself no favors when he rode in a tank complete with headgear to burnish his credentials as a potentially strong commander in chief. Film footage of Dukakis riding in the tank became the source of endless chortling as he was mocked for being “Snoopy in the Tank.”

On election day, Bush won 426 electoral votes to 111 for Dukakis. The vice president won 40 states and 53 percent of the popular vote to 10 states and the District of Columbia for Dukakis, who snagged 45 percent of the popular vote. It was a tremendous victory for two Houston men, the new president-elect and his campaign manager, James A. Baker III.

It was obvious to one and all that Baker would join the new Bush administration, and so he did. The president appointed Baker his secretary of state. Baker remained in the position for most of the Bush administration. He resigned in August 1992 to serve as Bush’s chief of staff. He remained in this role until Bush departed from the White House in January 1993.

As secretary of state, Baker was involved in the administration’s efforts to manage the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the United States for talks with President Bush in May 1990, the question of whether a recently reunified Germany would be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was among many topics discussed. Gorbachev agreed not to contest Germany’s admission into NATO after Secretary Bake assured the Soviet leader that NATO troops would not be stationed in East Germany. Moreover, the United States would not push for other eastern European nations to join NATO. President Bush did not always adhere to this plan—he favored allowing other eastern European nations to join NATO—but Baker’s assurances ratcheted down tensions with the Soviets, at least in the short run.

Faced with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Baker worried that the country’s nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands. If the republics sought independence and the Soviet Union were not territorially intact, the result could be multiple nations armed with nuclear weapons. President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recognized these risks, but they preferred that the former Soviet republics declare independence.

Baker was heavily involved in two of the Bush administration’s most important initiatives. First, at the president’s direction, he helped to develop a coalition of 34 nations to oppose Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Baker also worked to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through extensive negotiations with Israel, Palestinians, and Arab nations such as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Baker recognized that the Middle East peace process had been hampered by escalations on all fronts. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had constantly lobbied the United Nations for recognition as Palestine, an autonomous homeland for Arabs. At the same time, Israel had sought to expand its territory by building settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. Baker believed that both initiatives were detrimental to the peace process, and he continually sought to have the PLO and Israel step away from their most extreme demands.

As Bush faced reelection in 1992, he moved Baker out of the State Department and into the White House as his chief of staff. Baker had been anxious to leave the chief of staff position in the Reagan administration, but he understood that Bush needed his assistance in operating the White House as well as in running the reelection effort. He led the president’s 1992 campaign.

At the outset, Bush seemed likely to win reelection. In 1991, he was a popular incumbent president. He had led an international coalition of nations that decisively defeated Saddam Hussein and enhanced American prestige. His high approval ratings drove numerous potential challengers from the field of presidential aspirants. The smart money suggested that Bush would be almost impossible to beat.

Beginning late in 1992, however, his fortunes turned. The economy was facing headwinds as an economic recession convinced millions of Americans that the Bush administration’s policies were not working. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, a young, handsome, progressive governor, entered the race and eventually won the Democratic nomination. In an unusual development, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, a plain-talking populist and self-made man, declared a presidential bid from the independent Reform Party. For a brief time, Perot was leading both Bush and Clinton in public opinion polls.

Baker was savvy enough to realize that the economic downturn was hurting Bush’s prospects, but he could offer little that satisfied the public. Clinton was a young Baby Boomer and a naturally gifted politician who understood electoral politics far better than Bush. Although Clinton suffered through a series of personal scandals, including charges of serial womanizing, he appeared more in tune with the voters. At 68 years of age--22 years older than his opponent--Bush seemed out of touch.

Ross Perot was the wild card in the race. Third party candidates typically perform poorly in presidential contests, but 1992 proved to be an atypical year. Perot’s folksy style was the antithesis of the tightly controlled, well-rehearsed politician who spoke in guarded, bland generalities. Perot’s policy proposals were vague, ill-defined, and presumably unworkable, but he struck a chord with voters who were disgusted with politics as usual. Political pundits agreed that his presence in the contest probably siphoned off more votes from Bush than from Clinton.

When the ballots were counted on November 3, 1992, Clinton garnered 370 electoral votes to 168 for Bush. Although Perot did not earn any electoral votes, he earned almost 19 percent of the popular vote, the best showing of any third-party presidential candidate in American history. Despite his many foreign policy accomplishments, George H. W. Bush went down in defeat, the first incumbent president to lose his reelection bid since Jimmy Carter in 1980.

With no major patrons inside the federal government, James Baker headed for the private sector in 1993. He was a consultant for Enron, a multi-billion-dollar energy company that later declared bankruptcy after defrauding investors and the public for years. Well before the scandal, Baker raised concerns about the company’s participation in a power station in India, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. He also served as the honorary chair of the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy at Rice University.

Baker joined the Baker Botts law firm as a senior partner. He also joined the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm. In later years, he served in a variety of private sector firms as well as government positions. He discussed his years as President Bush’s secretary of state in a 1995 memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989-1992.

In the aftermath of the divisive 2000 presidential election, the Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush—George H. W. Bush’s son—hired Baker to be his legal adviser. The balloting for president came down to whether Bush or his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, won the state of Florida’s electoral votes. Owing to errors in several ballots in South Florida, the votes were being recounted, and Bush sought Baker’s advice on how to handle the procedure. Baker was part of a team that led to Bush’s narrow victory, thereby handing him the presidency.

Although Baker did not join the second Bush administration in a cabinet position, he nonetheless advised the new president on several matters, most notably on Iraq. Bush appointed Baker a special envoy to seek forgiveness or restructuring of $100 billion of international debt incurred by Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Later, Bush offered Baker the position of secretary of defense, but Baker declined.

In March 2006, Congress formed the Iraq Study Group, a panel of 10 former high-ranking government officials tasked with examining the country’s Iraq policy. Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana chaired the panel, which became known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission. After interviewing 170 witnesses and engaging in seven months of research and study, the commission prepared a report that set forth a series of recommendations, including a phased withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq and a concomitant transfer of power to the “new ruling elite” inside the country. The panel also determined that troops removed from Iraq should be dispatched to Afghanistan to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation. Released on December 6, 2006, the final report was 160 pages long and included 79 recommendations. Baker cautioned that the group’s recommendations did not include a “magic bullet.” No good choices existed when it came to handling Iraq.

Baker became the grand old man of the Republican Party during the 2010s, occasionally called upon to dispense advice and recommendations on difficult policy problems. He provided informal advice to Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign. Later, after Trump won the election, Baker recommended that the president-elect appoint Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, as his secretary of state. Although the relationship became rocky—with Tillerson lasting less than 14 months in the position—Trump was willing to listen to Baker’s advice. The new president did not always trust the counsel of old-line Republicans.

In his dotage, Baker sat on numerous boards of directors and policy councils. He also broke ranks with some conservative Republicans. In 2017, for example, he was part of a group of Republican elder statesmen urging party members to accept a carbon tax as a means of combating climate change.

Baker received numerous awards for his public service, including the 1985 U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Outstanding Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official presented by the Jefferson Awards for Public Service. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush presented Baker with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. The president of the United States presents the award to recipients who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

10 views0 comments


bottom of page