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James Baker on George H.W. Bush’s ‘extremely consequential’ presidency

James Baker, who served as secretary of state in the first Bush administration, was a close personal friend of George H.W. Bush for decades. As part of our remembrance of the former president, Judy Woodruff sits down with Baker to discuss how his path and Bush’s first crossed in Texas, a momentous 1980 telephone call from Ronald Reagan and Bush’s lifelong commitment to “selfless public service.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid the many reflections this week on the life of George H.W. Bush, few knew him as well or worked as closely on the major accomplishments of his presidency as his longtime friend and his secretary of state James Baker.

    Baker joined me a short time ago to offer an intimate look back at the 41st president, beginning before either men entered politics.

  • James Baker:

    He and Barbara moved back the Houston — moved to Houston in 1958, which was just one year after I moved back the Houston from law school, having gone to college at Princeton, and the Marine Corps, and then to law school.

    So, we both sort of hit the ground there about the same time, even though it was my home. And neither George nor I had a tennis doubles partner, of course, for the tennis doubles competition at the Houston Country Club, and they put us together.

    And the Bushes asked us to come over and have hamburgers and lunches and things like — we got to be friends that way, social friends.

    My first wife, who died very tragically at the age of 38, had known George's cousin in Ohio, and that was another connection. After my wife died, he came to me and he said: "You know, Bake, you got the take your mind off your grief. How about helping me run for the Senate?"

    Well, in those days, Texas was a solidly Democratic state, as Democratic then as it is Republican today. I said: "George, that's great, but I don't know anything about politics, and number one and number two, I'm a Democrat."

    He said, "Well, we can change that latter." And we did.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He came to the relationship already loving politics, excited about…

  • James Baker:

    Well, no, this was before he went into politics.

    But he was the son of a very distinguished United States senator, of course, so he had a political background to that extent. But he hadn't gotten into politics. His first foray into politics was in the early '60s. We met in the late '50s.

    He ran for county chairman, started right where he — I guess you should start, right at the bottom, and worked his way up to president of the United States. He was county chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. In those days, it was a hanging offense to be a Republican in Texas. I'm not kidding you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He came to love politics. It was in his blood.

  • James Baker:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What was it about public service that he — that drew him to it?

  • James Baker:

    Well, I think he — the example of his father, for one thing.

    We would be campaigning, and he would say: "My father inculcated in me a commitment to public service."

  • I said:

    "George, don't say inculcated. People think it's a disease. People in Texas don't understand that."

    But he had a commitment to public service, selfless public service. And that was — he practiced that all his life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was in Congress. He was the ambassador to China. He was…

  • James Baker:

    Ambassador to the U.N.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador to the U.N.

  • James Baker:

    Vice president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was head of the CIA, head of the Republican National Committee under President Nixon.

  • James Baker:

    And vice president for two terms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And vice — you were in the room when Ronald Reagan called him at the 1980 national convention.

  • James Baker:

    Right. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It changed his life.

  • James Baker:

    Yes, that's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did he…

  • James Baker:

    If he hadn't gotten that call, he has said, and I believe firmly, there wouldn't have been a Bush 41. And if there had not been a Bush 41, Bush 43 has said there wouldn't have been a Bush 43. And I believe that, too.

    So, yes, I was in the room. I answered the phone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did he change the presidency of Ronald Reagan? Did he?

  • James Baker:

    No, I really don't think so.

    But he was a very loyal vice president. He understood the job. He knew how it was supposed to be performed, and he performed it that way. He never let himself be juxtaposed against the president. He kept his advice to the president private. He didn't throw it out there in public means, because he knew that there's nothing that's secret here in Washington, D.C.

    So when he started running for president, he had to separate himself somewhat. It couldn't be seen to be a third — in effect, a Reagan term. And he successfully did that, the first time anybody has done it since 1856, a sitting vice president to get elected president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were so close to him. Did he do what he wanted to get done as president of the United States?

  • James Baker:

    Well, no, because he didn't have a second term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But he was there for four years.

  • James Baker:

    Oh, yes, his presidency was an extraordinarily consequential presidency, if you look at it, if you look at the things that he got done.

    And I was — of course, I'm a little biased because I was there serving at his right hand as secretary of state. Much of that was on the foreign policy side. He was an incredibly good foreign policy president, but he had some domestic achievements as well, some rather big ones.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did his loss affect him in 1992?

  • James Baker:

    Oh, it was devastating. He was devastated by that loss.

    And, you know, I read a lot today comments, pundits and so forth saying, he lost because he broke his no-new-taxes pledge.

    That's not why he lost, Judy. Everybody ought to get that straight. I ran that campaign, and I saw it every day in the polling. He lost because of a little guy from Dallas, Texas, called Ross Perot, who took 19 percent of the vote.

    And we knew from our polling he was taking two out of every three votes from us. We got 38, Clinton got 43. You add two-thirds of 19 to 38, and we get 51.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that loss, as tough as it was, he went on to be active for another, what, 25, 26 years of his life.

  • James Baker:

    Yes, 25 — yes, 25 or 26. That's correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it didn't slow him down. He kept going.

  • James Baker:

    No, but it was devastating to him.

    You know, during that '92 campaign, some people would say, well, his heart is not really in it. He doesn't really want it.

    Uh-uh. Most competitive man I have ever known in my life. And I don't know why people missed that, but they did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that's — but to say he was competitive, and yet people say he was a gentleman, he was a decent man.

  • James Baker:

    He was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of people think the two things don't coexist.

  • James Baker:

    No, they're not mutually exclusive.

    He was a gentleman, but he was man of steely resolve. And when he decided he wanted to do something or was going to do something, there wasn't any swerving. There was no detours on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was he aware — how much did he pay attention in the last few years to how Washington has changed? What did he think about Washington, what's going on in Washington?

  • James Baker:

    Well, he found it ugly up here compared to the way it was when he were here.

    And when we were here, people came up here with the idea that they wanted to get something done for the American people and done for the country. And there was a lot of partnership, a lot of reaching across the aisle, both parties.

    And another thing is that people that come to Washington don't bring their families anymore. A congressman comes up here. Congress only meets from Tuesday afternoon until Thursday afternoon, and then they go back to raise money for next year's campaigns — or two years' campaign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And go back.

  • James Baker:

    So, they don't bring their families. There's no social interaction across party lines, the way there used to be. We had good friends, really, really good friends who were Democrats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you to put your secretary of state hat on.

    Saudi Arabia, there is a lot of conversation right now after the death, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • James Baker:

    Yes, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This administration has tread lightly when it comes to Saudi Arabia, but now we have Republican, as well Democratic senators saying…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • James Baker:

    I know, and you want me to comment on something that's current news, and I think that's great.

    When you formulate and implement foreign policy for America, you have got to consider not only America's interests, national interests, but also our principles and values. So you have to strike a balance.

    And the job facing this administration is to strike the right balance. Who knows whether this is the right balance. And the story is not over yet. It's probably — as you point out, with the Republicans in the Congress saying what they're saying, it may go another way.

    But the national interest is very important, too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very last quick question. Do you think the kind of civility that we saw during the presidency of George H.W. Bush will ever come back?

  • James Baker:

    I think it can come back, yes.

    I was asked that question yesterday, I guess, or the day before. Yes, I think it will come back. I really do civility in our politics.

    We need to stop yelling at each other as a nation and start listening to each other. It is really regrettable, because the way you get things done — you know, in a democracy, no one side gets to make all the rules, OK? And the way you get things done is to work constructively with the other side to benefit the national interests.

    And I think we will get back to that some day. I sure hope we will.

    Let me say this. The fault is on both sides. The incivility exists on both sides. When you look at some of the things that some prominent Democrats have said recently — and I'm not going to quote — I'm not going to — you know what I'm talking about.

    So, you see it both ways. Of course, you're talking to an adversarial Republican when you talk to me. I have run campaigns for Republican presidents, three of them, or four, if you want to put it…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, you have.

    Secretary of State Jim Baker, thank you very much for talking to me.

  • James Baker:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it.

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