Chief White House Correspondent, New York Times; Coauthor, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
Staff Writer, New Yorker; Coauthor, The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III
Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in the American Presidency, Vanderbilt University; Author, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush; CFR Member
Speakers discuss the distinguished career of former Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff James Baker.
HAASS: Well, thank you and good afternoon. Though good morning if you're on the west coast and good evening, if you're in the Atlantic. Welcome to today's meeting. It is, as you know, to mark the publication of a new book, The Man Who Ran Washington, see if I can hold it up here. Subtitle is The Life and Times of James A. Baker III. It is written by Peter-no-relation-Baker, and Susan Glasser. Peter is, as you know, the White House Correspondent at the New York Times. Susan writes this sensational weekly missive from the New Yorker about Trump's Washington.
At some point, we may ask her what she's going to do come January twentieth, on the presumption that it's, that no longer applies (Laughs). And we also have with us in an embarrassment of riches, the historian in chief, the eulogist in chief, and most recently, the biographer of John Lewis, Jon Meacham. I will try but fail to maintain order in this meeting. I can tell you that at the outset. But I want to begin with the question that is on everybody's mind. So that Peter, to the coast too, I want you to talk about marriage and writing a book together. And to what extent do you recommend it as a guide to others?
BAKER: (Laughs) I'll leave that to you (Laughs).
GLASSER: Well, thank you so much, Richard and Jon. It's an honor to be with you today. And the good news I can report is that Peter and I are still on speaking terms (Laughs). So in that sense, it's worked out okay. And you, actually, this is not our first book together. So we had a little bit of a hope that this one would work out well. We wrote a book after our four years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, Kremlin Rising. And actually, in many ways, that one was much more difficult because we actually finished it the day that we had our son Theo. And so (Laughs) this one took a lot longer, seven years gestation, but didn't involve anything nearly so difficult.
BAKER: I could say, having written a book with Jon Meacham that I'm no longer, I'm no longer speaking with him (Laughs).
HAASS: So that clarifies things. That was the perspective I was hoping for. So let's turn to the subject of the book to Mr. Baker, the other Mr. Baker, James A. Baker III. One word that you both use a lot in the book is competent. Two questions. One is what is your definition of the word? And what other words come to mind? And I'd like to get Jon and on that as well. But when you were to associate with Jim Baker, what does come to mind? Why competence so often?
BAKER: Yeah. Well competent mean, you know, it's an undersold virtue. But I think the last number of years in Washington have reminded us that competence is actually kind of a good thing. And, you know, having a white house, a congress, you know, a system that works, isn't something we should take for granted. And I think that what Jim Baker showed was, it was possible to get things done even in a divided capitol, even in a partisan capitol, even in a capitol with very different philosophical and ideological players in it. And so that's I think, what we mean, and we talked about competence with Jim Baker.
Other words I would use discipline, dignified, right. You know, he had a sense of principles, obviously, there are, you know, we could argue about, you know, campaigns versus governing. But I would say deal maker is a word I would use with him. The art of the deal was not invented in a book in 1987. It was invented in the 1980s by Jim Baker, in a lot of ways and I think there's a lot of evidence to show that. So it would be a few words I would use.
GLASSER: Yeah, and I would throw in competitive and I think that is one of the underrated reasons for his success in deal making and in other areas as well.
HAASS: Jon, you've written books about presidents, alive and others. When you look at Jim Baker, and you compare, let's just take these three major jobs: chief of staff, treasury and state. I'd be curious to like, where do you rank him? Like when he's with the modern secretaries of state if you go back to the let's say modern era of being Truman and you had Marshall you've had Acheson, Byrnes, Stettinius. Truman had four, all the way through the contemporaries. Where's, take state, where does where does Jim Baker come out in that line?
MEACHAM: Well, let me say off the top that, Dr. Haass, whenever I hear that I want to schedule a cleaning with him. So let's just cut through that immediately. I'm honored to be here with three of my good friends and people I admire so much. I think Jim Baker is the most talented American public servant of our time, who did not become president. I think that he had the skills, the capacity in that mystical formulations that form people who can be head of government and head of state. So that's the first thing. I am a huge fan.
Now my second favorite book about Jim Baker is the Politics of Diplomacy, his memoir of being secretary of state. Because, and I've said this to Secretary Baker once, if you're going to teach the defining existential conflict of human history, which is the Cold War, because human extinction was what was on the table, you have to know that book, and you have to know what Marshall, Truman, Acheson did, and you have to know what Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft did. And I think, and Richard Haass, of course. And I think that arc is essential. So I teach actually where I take sections from Present at the Creation, Acheson's memoir and sections, now would be sections of course from Peter and Susan's book, sections of Secretary Baker's book.
And so I think he's absolutely essential based on the fact that the deadliest, potentially the deadliest standoff in the world ever, no hyperbole, ended peacefully on his watch and President Bush's watch. The other thing I would say about competence quickly, the thing that I adore about Baker in a dorky adoration way is he understand, understood the fundamental insight that got us through the Cuban Missile crisis and that he brought to Washington, which was always understand the other guy's equities.
They have to save face, they need a way out, they have to, you can't treat an adversary as if every encounter is a shermanesque march through Georgia. You got to give them a way out. And that's a brilliant insight. And I think it saved us in 1962, and I think it saved us at the end of the Cold War. And there's nobody better that I've encountered historically who practice that more skillfully than Jim Baker.
HAASS: Peter and Susan, I'd like to pick up on that and put one thing to you then, if people were looking at the major contemporary secretary states, another one would obviously be a gentleman with a German accent and named Henry Kissinger. In terms of background, it's hard to think of two people more different. One trained as an academic, one trained as a lawyer, one an immigrant, one from this, you know, slightly privileged background in Texas. So, to what extent that is, I mean, maybe Baker is more in the Acheson tradition. I'm just curious, when you looked at him against his fifty or whatever was up, sixty predecessors, what was your sense of what in sense made him different?
GLASSER: Well, I think Jon is onto something very important which is this notion of a consequential man at a consequential moment. It's the combination of those two things I think, that puts Baker in the first ranks. And, you know, even as familiar as Peter and I were when we started this out with the events of the end of the Cold War, it was really an exercise for us in remembering that history looks a lot more inevitable, in hindsight than it did at the time.
And I think that if you reexamine carefully, in particular, the diplomacy that Secretary Baker undertook and the German reunification, it's really that in of itself is probably I think, you know, the most, the pinnacle of American diplomacy in recent decades and something that had a lasting effect that was by no means a foregone conclusion. When you look at the sheer number of obstacles lined up in front of it, the time constraints, the things that might have gone wrong and the pressures back in Washington, not, you know, because the team as you know better than I were was not on the same page, but simply because events were so fast moving.
This was Baker was generally cautious as well and yet, I think, had acts of boldness when required to create the framework for this happening. And so, to me, I think that's an argument for consequentialism at the right moment. You know, Henry Kissinger is the kind of person who will come up with a geostrategic reimagining of the map that was not Secretary Baker's way. He was not an ideologue, even when it came to diplomacy. And I think it served him and the country extremely well.
BAKER: Yeah, I would have to say Kissinger, of course, would view himself as a geopolitical thinker, anyways as he was. But you would never hear Jim Baker talk about the Treaty of Westphalia and the evolution of the modern nation state, it just wasn't his way of looking at things. And the reason he names his memoir that Jon just talked about, The Politics of Diplomacy, is because Baker did something that almost no other such a state did, which is to marry politics and policy, right. He had run five presidential campaigns before, you know, as well as becoming secretary of state. Kissinger obviously only plays in the policy arena. Most other secretaries of state, generally, were either policy mavens, or maybe they were politicians, but they hadn't played at the same level that Baker had. And I think it was that marriage of political instinct with the policy challenges of the moment that distinguish him from others.
MEACHAM: And can I jump in Richard, I think we should just be totally honest here, that perhaps his chief diplomatic task and achievement was managing both Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. And I don't say that to be clever. I mean, I think that that was an immensely important thing. And I remember, at one point, when I was doing the book on forty-one, I asked him was it hard to be a campaign manager for your friend, he said, not for your friend, the friend's family is a whole different matter.
BAKER: (Laughs) Well, there's some great stuff in the archives. One of the things that Baker did was very generous was to give us complete access to his archives at Princeton, as well, at Rice. And there are these great notes that were written from back in the 1980 campaign in particular, where he was clearly just tearing his hair out because of Jonathan Bush, the brother or you know, other members of the family who thought they knew the best way to run the campaign. And it's a natural thing, by the way, in almost any campaign the candidate's family is almost always more problematic in some ways than the candidate. And Baker of course, as you say, he had the skill to navigate that in the end, of course, Nancy Reagan asked him to give the eulogy at her funeral. So you know, and I think that in the end, he manages those relationships in a way that few people do.
GLASSER: Well ironically, he also had to manage Henry Kissinger. Yeah, who (Laughs) was no big fan of Baker's, especially throughout his rise. And that was a surprise to us finding out that Baker's career in Washington was almost torpedoed basically, on the takeoff strip, because he dared to take on Henry Kissinger as an obscure commerce department official. It's kind of a miracle that Kissinger was not able to squash him like a bug. And, you know, it was obviously a big challenge for both President George H.W. Bush and Baker. Kissinger immediately was in their face as soon as Bush won election with this and that idea, and they had to gently make clear that it was they who were going to be running American policy toward the Soviet Union and not Kissinger.
MEACHAM: And there's also an argument I would, please you all assess the validity of this, as we would say, that twenty years of our modern political history were shaped by a single decision of Jim Baker's. Which was to tell the Washington Post that George H.W. Bush was getting out of the 1980 primary, when Ambassador Bush was, I think, at a Holiday Inn in Newark, and was displeased, I think, to say least, to find out that his friend and campaign manager had done that. But I, but as a forty-one's biographer, I will tell you, George H.W. Bush doesn't become vice president, he doesn't become president and most likely, and his son would tell you, his son doesn't become president without that hinge moment.
BAKER: Yeah. And it takes…
HAASS: Go ahead. Unless you are frozen there. Peter and Susan have you frozen?
GLASSER: We're here.
HAASS: Okay, go. Go ahead.
BAKER: I'm gonna say it takes a good friend to do that. That's one thing any president or want would it be president ought to have is somebody who's good enough friend to tell them when it's time to pack it in. And I think that's something that very few presidents have.
HAASS: In either of these jobs or any of these jobs at state, chief of staff, secretary of state, are you aware, did you ask him whether Jim Baker modeled himself, did he, after anybody, was there anybody, any predecessor, anybody he secretly said, that's kind of the way I want to go about this, that's a substantive or stylistic way. Did you think in those terms or not?
GLASSER: Honestly, we struck out in every single kind of question like that (Laughs). I remember very vividly trying this line of inquiry when we were lucky enough to visit with Secretary Baker and his wife, Susan, on their ranch in Wyoming. And, you know, bringing my, putting my foreign policy hat on, I particularly remember going down a dead end with my questions about his views of the Soviet Union, and how they had been shaped, and, you know, what about his time at Princeton, and what, you know, what intellectual influences and, you know, how did he see the job as secretary of state?
And he finally, you know, he's very pleasant and humoring me with this line of inquiry, and he finally said, well, the truth is, is that I had this wonderful tennis coach in Houston growing up, who was a white Russian, his name was Andrew Gicough, I believe, and he was like a father to me. As you know, that sort of made me realize that this was not a very productive area of inquiry.
MEACHAM: That is so reassuring. I can't tell you how many times I went to the plate asking for George H.W. Bush's strategic vision, and he would order another martini, so he didn't have to talk about it. Another great little anecdote it's in Bush's diary is Kissinger comes to see him, I think in the Vice President's mansion. And he says, Kissinger announced that he wanted to talk to Bush about his strategic vision, and Bush said of himself, of course, Henry doesn't think I have a strategic vision (Laughs).
BAKER: Exactly (Laughs).
HAASS: Okay. But that's a perfect segue to my next question about Jim Baker which is, you use words like competence and dealmaker, what was though the ideological or philosophical or substantive compass? Because there are deals he could have made that he didn't make somewhere along the way. So what was it that informed him? What was it, I mean, if it wasn't the Treaty of Westphalia like it is for so many of us, what is it that provided the intellectual compass for someone who was Secretary of State for nearly four years?
BAKER: Yeah, that's a great question. I love your answer, actually, having literally been on his plane during these, during these rather momentous events. I take, I see Baker as an engineer, not an architect. In other words, I don't think he came to the secretary of stateship wanting to remake the world. I think he looked at what the world was, soused out what the opportunities were, figured out what the challenges were and decided how he wanted to meet them.
So you know, David Gergen says that Baker looked at problems in three categories, right. There was the impossible, in which case, he just said, let's not waste time on it, which is his view of the Middle East when he first got there, because there wasn't any percentage, he thought, in wasting time and area wasn't going to be successful. There were the easy problems which we left to Richard Haass, and to others who worked for him, who could take care of them. And then there are the difficult but doable, therefore worthy challenges.
And I think, so he came to office of secretary of state, looking at the end of the Cold War and figuring that was his main goal, that was his main task for that four years he's gonna have. So he gets things off the table, right. At that time, we still have this proxy war going in Nicaragua with the conscious. So the very first thing he does after the 1988 election is sit down with Jim Right, in Bob Strauss's apartment in the Watergate in Washington, how do we make this go away and effect.
And he works with Jim Wright and Jimmy Carter, and Democrats to say, let's get that off the table so I can focus on the things I really do want to get it, get done, in that case, of course, the relationship with the Soviet Union. So I don't think that's an ideological thing. I think it's a very practical way of looking at the world. But I'd love your, do you agree with that or?
GLASSER: Yeah, I mean, to the extent there is a through line. There are two things I would say, especially because he continues to hold these views now, and I think they really show what his vantage point was about the world then and today. The two things would be a real belief in diplomacy and international alliances, and partnerships. That was at the core of his approach to the world. And you know, you can look back and read about or think about the obsessive post taking and European capitals, followed by engaging with and briefing the allies. So one is a true kind of internationalism.
And then the other thing that I would say that runs through it, is a deep concern and restraint when it comes to the idea of use of American military force. And that was true, I think, even in the initial discussions about the first Gulf War, in his initial instincts, and it certainly was true in his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it continues to be something that he would bring up unprompted with us today. And so to me, those are the two kind of twin polls that his attitude about American leadership in the world. Yes, American leadership, but a very specific kind of American leadership.
MEACHAM: Can I ask now for a theory and then Richard, you respond to it. My sense is that George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker are more genuinely berkey and conservative than Reagan or George W. Bush.
MEACHAM: Reagan and George W. Bush actually are not classical conservatives. President Bush, Secretary Baker, are. They, in the classic nineteenth century, eighteenth-nineteenth century sense, they see reality they want to maximize, and the old Wall Street Journal phrase, free men and free markets as best they can. But the idea that you remake the world out of your head is a fanciful vision, and not something that is worth pursuing. Richard, what do you think?
HAASS: I think that's true, but I actually think there's a little bit of daylight between forty-one and Jim Baker here. I actually think that forty, I should just put on the table you've intimated, I worked for those four years at the NSC closely with the president and with Brent Scowcroft. My own view is the president was more risk prone than Jim Baker. Very early on the president, after Saddam invaded, the president along with Brent was the first person essentially there to basically say, no way, and this will not stand. I think Secretary Baker was, shall we say, slower to it.
And even as late as the meeting with Tariq Aziz in January a week before Desert Shield became Desert Storm, was still looking for a way of potentially settling this even two weeks into the war and is meeting with [INAUDIBLE] was still looking at some ways to maybe, to stop the war. The president was leaning much more forward, was leaning slightly more forward, I think, maybe with China at the time of tenement. I actually got the sense that Secretary Baker was in that sense, slightly more cautious, and totally consistent with what you're all saying, was working within the constraints.
And the president, maybe this is one of the reasons the president at the end of the day was someone who ran for office, was a little bit more willing, if say, the coil choice, to do things that weren't guarded, that weren't careful. I mean, yeah, push back at me if you disagree with that.
BAKER: No, I agree with that.
GLASSER: I think that's absolutely consistent here. And it's, by the way consistent with Jon's view of Baker. He wouldn't articulate it, you know, in sort of Edmund Burke terms, but that is a very consistent thing, including his hesitancy, his natural hesitancy about the use of military force, which in my view, comes not just from an inherent conservatism, but also from a sense about what is actually worth risking American lives and what is actually in the American national interest. And to me, he would unequivocally say it's in the American national interest, to lead coalitions and to lead diplomacy. But very, very few conditions that I can imagine him saying that it was worth it to put American lives at risk outside the country.
HAASS: I want to come back to two last questions before I open it up to our members. And I have to ask this, firstly, given that Jon's here, as well as the two of you, which is on the relationship between forty-one and Secretary Baker. And you write about it, both of you write about it in your respective books. So say something about it, which is…one way of putting it would either had done what he did without the other. How essential was forty-one to Jim Baker's career, and vice versa? How much in a funny sort of way, were they joined not something on the tennis court early on, but through life, were, in some ways, their trajectories dependent on one another's?
BAKER: Yeah. I would say completely. You know, it's hard to imagine, certainly, it's hard to imagine Secretary Baker without a President Bush. But I think it's hard to imagine a President Bush without a Secretary Baker too. I do think the two of them more than any other pair in modern politics, maybe the different, maybe JFK and RFK. But I can't think of any other pair in our modern times who were so essential to each other's careers. And it was born out of a real friendship, that wasn't just about politics, right.
So most secretaries of state, our political friends or political allies of a president or maybe even political rivals, and they're trying to, you know, knit up a party or something, they're not personal friends. These guys have been friends for 10 years or so before politics even really entered the equation. So when Baker's first wife, Mary Stewart, is dying of cancer, the one person he trusts, the one person he confides in, he doesn't even tell her that the diagnosis is terminal, the one person he tells is George H.W. Bush. And we have that letter in our book, and I think that told us when we were doing this book about how profound that relationship really was.
Now, they did both describe it to us, and I think probably to Jon as well, as a brotherly sibling kind of relationship. So there were moments, obviously a friction, moments where the two of them would be sour on each other or something. Obviously, that 1980 moment you mentioned, George H.W. Bush is not all that happy with his friend, Jim Baker. They were…the 1992 campaign was stressful, that choice of Dan Quayle was maybe an act of rebellion on some part by President Bush forty-one.
But in the end, at the end of the day, when President Bush was dying, the person who came to his house three times that day in Houston, with Jim Baker, the person rubbing his feet, on his deathbed when he passes away, is his friend, Jim Baker. And I think that friendship is so extraordinary and so part and parcel to both of their lives. Jon, I don't know if you agree, but I just think that for our purposes of the bigger biographers anyway, it's central to the story.
MEACHAM: I agree with all of that. I think one of the bonds they had, even though they didn't know each other at the time, that the Bushes had lost Robin, is they had both been fundamentally touched by tragedy. I think that George H.W. Bush was the most innately empathetic man I've ever known. But that would have informed his, the bonds they formed when Mrs. Baker died. You're exactly right about the brotherly competition.
I remember chasing, figuratively chasing President Bush around the porch in Maine one day, about why Quayle, why he had never had a come to Jesus conversation with Baker. I mean, you got Jim Baker sitting there, and you're not going to do a gut check? And I'll never forget, he didn't really want to, he didn't want to answer at all. And he was looking at his binoculars because he wanted to go fishing, so he was trying to figure out where the fish were. And finally, he said, sometimes you just don't want people telling you what to do all the time.
And in that case, Baker was a representative of something. This was George Bush's first time in eight years to make his own decision. And I think it was a kind of rebellion. It was a kind of I know, I can handle this. And I don't think it was in reaction to Baker. But I think that was a factor. I described it in my book a long time ago now as one of the most effective political marriages that sometimes they would kill, sometimes they wanted to kill each other, most of the time they would kill for each other.
BAKER: Right (Laughs).
HAASS: Let me ask one last question, which is, comes at the end of the book, and it deals with the present situation. I mentioned before, that it was hard to think of two people more different some ways in Henry Kissinger and Jim Baker. I could easily make the same statement about Jim Baker and current president of the United States. And the view out there I think is that, you, it's come up in stuff you've written Susan and Peter, about Jim Baker's reluctance or reticence whatever word you want to use to distance themselves from this president, even though their visions of the republican party, their visions, I would say, of the Republic, could hardly be more different.
So I think the question is why, why hold back at this stage in life with someone who in many ways, his views of alliances, his use of international institutions, his views of multilateralism, is as night and day compared to Jim Baker, as we we've ever seen. Jim Baker, you think about the Ford race, 9000 or so votes in Ohio and Hawaii that was the difference. With Ford and was Carter I guess it was, 9000 votes looks kind of small compared to where we are now. So I'm just curious why, what explains Jim Baker's holding back from essentially having been the Old Testament voice of the establishment taking on the disruptor in chief?
GLASSER: Well, as you might imagine, this is a question that we both asked ourselves, and as Secretary Baker many times. And, you know, we began the book back in the dim recesses of the Obama era. So before Donald Trump was even, you know, a glimmer in our collective eyes, never mind our Twitter feeds. And, you know, this became though, over the last five years a sort of, you know, running conversation. And I have to say, at a certain point, I think Peter and I realized we had asked Secretary Baker the same question over and over and over again, and, you know, if you (Laughs), you get the same answer over and over and over again, you have to listen to your subject, ultimately.
And it was, I think perplexing for the reasons that you just, you know, sketched out, Richard, I mean, the truth is, is that he's un-Trump in so many ways. And by the way, not under any illusions about who President Trump is. Secretary Baker was absolutely clear with us, he said, at various points that he thought that Trump was, quote, crazy, that he was, quote, nuts. He was of course offended by the incompetence and the chaos surrounding the administration. He didn't like the lies. I remember visiting with him in his office in Houston soon after the inauguration of President Trump, and, you know, he said, and why does he keep saying that Mexico is going to pay for the wall? Mexico is not going to pay for the wall. Why doesn't he just say it?
So it's not like he was under any illusions about what was happening here. And certainly to the extent he thought, originally, I think perhaps he might have been under the misimpression that there was something more in common between Trump's outsider presidency, and Ronald Reagan's outsider presidency. And I do think that initially, perhaps he was a subscriber to the adults in the room theory and the idea that people like Rex Tillerson, his friend and acquaintance from Houston might be able to kind of shape and guide the Trump presidency. Obviously, that didn't happen.
When we came to discussing the 2020 election, you know, there was no sense from Secretary Baker that he thought that Donald Trump was going to be more constrained or governable in a in a second term. It was really very ideological the way in which he expressed his willingness to vote for Trump a second time, and it was very much couched in well, he's the devil we know, and, you know, the democrats are so terrible and socialist, and all this. And, you know, so I think for me, it was a reminder that our book, you know, is a study in power, not a celebration of it, and that for Secretary Baker, he chose at the age of ninety to have this more partisan identity for whatever reasons.
HAASS: Okay. Laura, that's probably as good a place as any to take a pause and open it up for questions from members. There's lots we haven't gotten to which we can fault the presider for. We may dig down along the way a little bit more in the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War, we haven't talked about Middle East Policy really with Israel. And I've got one or two questions at the end. But Laura, why don't we open up to our members.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions). We'll take the first question from Joe Nye.
Q: This is a great discussion. As Richard will remember, he and I differ greatly in 1988 about the election. And when I wrote my recent book Do Morals Matter, Bush forty-one wound up in the top tier of presidents in terms of their foreign policy. But as I described the Bush presidency foreign policy, it's really a triumvirate. And there's a third member of the triumvirate we haven't talked about which is Brent Scowcroft. And so the question is, how crucial was Scowcroft to the chemistry that made this such a successful foreign policy? Or another way of putting it counterfactually, suppose there'd been a different NSC advisor, would it have all turned out as well as it did?
BAKER: Yeah, I think it's a great point in fact, and Richard would know better again than we would, but I thought Scowcroft was absolutely vital to that team because you had probably the most cohesive, what's at least describing way, as the most cohesive foreign policy team of our lifetime probably at that moment Scowcroft NSC, Colin Powell at joint chiefs of staff. Dick Cheney actually at defense who was a very good friend of Jim Baker's and then that administration, whereas they disagreed at times they remained very good friends, and very collegial even when they, you know, went at it sometimes.
I think Scowcroft is key to that, he set the tone from the beginning that this was going to be a team rather than us series of, you know, fighting interest as it was in the Reagan administration. I remember early on he told Jim Baker, he says to him look I'm never going to go on television, without clearing with you first. And there was he was deferring to Baker as the public face of foreign policy. He didn't want to compete with Baker, he wanted to supplement Baker or support Baker, and Baker eventually, they didn't need to do that because of course they could trust Scowcroft and Scowcroft would never, you know, do anything that would be contrary to the team's interests.
I think that Baker, Bush's friendship with Scowcroft became so tight, what's interesting is that it didn't seem to, it didn't threaten Baker's friendship with Bush either even though Scowcroft was there in the building every single day, whereas Baker was not. They manage to both be friends with Bush in a way that was, you know, intimate and crucial, even though they had different kind of, you know, histories with him.
HAASS: Jon you wrote, you obviously wrote about it from the perspective of forty-one. What's your take on that?
MEACHAM: Yeah. I think President Bush saw Scowcroft as, and Richard check me on this, kind of, I don't want to say a security blanket. That's not quite what I mean. But he was a comforting presence. He was smart, he presented the options, he saw himself very much in the classic NSC model. Bush liked being around him. And I think that General Scowcroft, from my conversations with him had learned in the Ford administration, that the best way to thrive, if you wanted to endure in a policy and political arena, was to let the heavyweights box and don't get in the middle of it.
I remember he said once there were always heavyweights all over the place, and my job was to serve the president and make sure he had the best information. And I think as you know, as we all know, they were incredibly close to the very end. In fact to the point where Brent bought a place in Maine, near the Bushes. So it was, I wouldn't want to rank one or the other as more important, but I think we were incredibly fortunate that we had, I agree with Joe, I think a triumvirate is a good word.
HAASS: I actually think they were different on some of the policy recommendations. But two things, their differences were smaller than their similarities. And second of all, they both played the game by the rules, which is something very much that forty-one wanted. And so there was a significant trust factor at their level and my more modest level, and so it spread throughout the government. But Brent was actually more for, people I think confuse Brent's mild manner with intellectual mildness, and it wasn't. He was on many issues for so sometimes he carried the day like on the Gulf War, when it came to questions of Gorbachev and German unification, actually, Jim Baker carried the day.
I mean, it was it just depended on issue to issue. But I think at the end of the day it worked because people would not do in runs. And so there was a sufficient trust in it, even though there were at times pretty, yeah, there were clear differences in emphasis, though they both believe in, what you might call since we now have an administration that doesn't buy into the fundamentals of a lot of American foreign policy, they were they were both within the forty-five yard lines. There was, no one was operating from an end zone in that administration.
BAKER: In comparison, right, so every week, Brent Scowcroft had breakfast with Baker and Cheney, just the three of them, right, in his office to hash out over issues. In the Trump administration when it started, H.R. McMaster tried to do that, and nobody would actually come, they wouldn't actually have this breakfast.
MEACHAM: And when I say security blanket, what I mean really is Baker is a was a standalone brand, in the way we talk about politics now, right. It was entirely plausible that Jim Baker would run for president one day. It was not plausible that Brent Scowcroft would. And I think that maybe it was just intuitive. But I think Bush understood that.
HAASS: If he did and I could imagine in a different country, Jim Baker could have been Prime Minister. It seemed to me his talents really lent itself to that. If he had been born British one very easily could have imagined him ending up in 10 Downing Street. Okay, Laura, let's get some more questions.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Avis Bohlen. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: I'm Avis Bohlen, retired Foreign Service Officer and I was fortunate enough to be in the European bureau under Baker working on arms control and so saw a bit of the performance from a rather lowly level. And I just think that for a professional foreign service officer, the Bush administration and Baker, and Scowcroft it was just a professional diplomat stream. Because things work because you all have described there was trust, and there was professionalism and there was just a really atmosphere where things got done. And of course it was, I have to say it was the most exciting moment in my career when the Berlin Wall came down and so on.
And I just wanted to, I have a question, but I just wanted to supplement what Jon Meacham said about the dealmaker, because I always remember what one of my colleagues said that when a foreign leader said to Baker, you're asking me to do something that I just cannot do, it will ruin me domestically. He would instantly understand where that guy was coming from. And he'd say, okay, but for the rest of his life, it would make him pay (Laughs). And I think that was at the heart of his success. I have a substantive question. Their instinct, Baker's instinct, the whole administration was so absolutely spot on for German reunification, for Europe for dealing with the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. But when it came to the Balkans, this was not a success. And I just would be interested in your perspective, and Richard's for that matter what, you know, what failed here?
HAASS: Go ahead.
GLASSER: Well, thank you. It was, I mean, first of all that is a great observation about his negotiating skills. And that lack of zero sum approach to negotiating I think was at the heart of whether it was deals with Democrats in Washington, or Soviets. And, you know, what's interesting in terms of the State Department, though, was that I do think he was initially viewed with some real suspicion on the part of the permanent foreign service. And, you know, he really even might have encouraged that initially with this idea that, you know, I'm here, not as the representative of the State Department to the President, but the opposite the President's representative here, and that's whose interest I'm reflecting.
He came with his what he called this plug in unit of staff to the State Department, unlike his predecessor, George Shultz, who famously showed up all by himself (Laughs), you know, with that big bureaucracy. I think being in the center of the action matters an awful lot to diplomats, as with others in Washington, and success, of course, is also its own best argument. And there was probably no more vital or important place in American government in that period, than in the middle of Jim Baker state department.
But to the question about the Balkans, you know, to me, this is a reflection of that strict hierarchy and prioritization that Baker brought with him to the job of state department. There were momentous things happening around the world, for example, it was also the period of the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. And you know, that's not an event that you associate with Jim Baker, because he really didn't focus so much on it. And I think the same could be true of the brewing conflict and signs of conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as it was breaking apart. You know, really, you could also argue that he and Bush were slow to recognize the convulsions inside the Soviet Union as well, that, you know, the rise of Boris Yeltsin was something, you know, that they weren't entirely sure how to handle and the end of Gorbachev hold over the party and then subsequently the country.
And I think that's the bucket in which we came to look at what happened there that essentially, you know, he really, it was peripheral vision, and it never got the center pride of place that it should have. And, of course, they clearly expected to have a second term in office. And I think that also shaped a lot of Baker's attitude towards some brewing foreign policy conflicts both with the Balkans is one example, with the Soviets and in the Middle East, where he clearly saw the Madrid peace conference as a building block toward further diplomacy, which never happened in a second Bush term.
HAASS: There was also I think Susan on the Balkans, I think there was a little bit of administration exhaustion after the end of the Cold War, after the Gulf War. And you had people like Brent Scowcroft with Larry Eagleburger, both of whom would serve there. And in a funny sort of way their expertise, almost so complexified that I think they were, made them wary of getting the United States heavily involved. And it wasn't clear about things like the use of force in the rest, about what might be done, it was very hard to walk into the oval office and say, if you do A, B, and C, C, D, and E, or E and D, and F will come of it. So I think it was slightly kept that at arm's length while people kept busy with other things. And then you ran into the last year of the administration, when it was very hard to make the case for new foreign policy endeavors. And the political environment that a, this president seeking reelection found himself, found himself in.
MEACHAM: I think the point about being tired is really interesting. As a, just as a basic, but since we're talking about biography, and I remember Secretary Baker at some point describing that they were I think we're talking about why he didn't try to challenge Bill Clinton in ninety-six. I think it was Susan, who said, you're still too tired. Because I mean, imagine starting in seventy-six, he'd been running flat out. And I think the wear and tear there is something we always have to pay attention to.
HAASS: Laura let's take another one up.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Jim Winship. Please accept the unmute now button.
Q: First, thank you to all of you for the insights into the work that you've done. But let me ask you to interpolate a little bit, which is we've seen a great deal of controversy about the current secretary of state mixing policy and politics. And I wonder if looking back at Baker's career, where you feel he drew those lines in terms of, he integrated politics, but where was he drawing lines between his partisan political identity, and he's policymaker identity?
BAKER: Yeah, that's a great question, Jim. I think it's, you know, a lot of secretary of state, of course, are political actors, and they, you know, whisper in the ears of the president if they have some thoughts about politics. Where Pompeo went further than any previous one was literally making political speeches, even at the republican convention. That's something you wouldn't see I think, Jim Baker do while in office. I found the biggest example of contrast came during the impeachment trial of President Trump earlier this year.
And I was covering with Susan, we were both covering during the day and come home at night, and kind of work on the Baker book, make sure we were finishing it up. And I was going through some files one night after spending the day at the hill on senate trial, and I found a memo that we had taken from, you know, copied from Baker's archives, but hadn't used in the book that we had drafted at that point. And the memo was 1992 when Bush was running for reelection he was losing at that point to Bill Clinton. In the memo Baker describes four republican congressmen coming to the oval office that day and saying to President Bush and Secretary Baker, you need to go to Russia, to get them to help and get you dirt on Bill Clinton. Because remember, of course, Bill Clinton has a whole controversy about him being a young man and visiting Moscow and protesting the Vietnam War while overseas and had he tried to renounce the citizenship and all this stuff.
And these republican congressmen said, go to, you know, your friends in Moscow and get some information that will denigrate your opponent. Boy, if that didn't sound like a great echo at that particular moment when we were covering the trial of a president who had gone to Ukraine basically seeking their help against a domestic opponent. The difference, of course, is that President Bush and Secretary Baker said no, we don't do that. That's not what we do. We don't bring in foreign powers into our domestic contest to denigrate a rival and Baker, of course, being very good about making sure that he had covered his bases, commits this to writing and puts in a memo so there's always a record of it. But there was a difference, such a contrast between what we were covering in the real time daily news events, and then looking back at this moment in 1992, and seeing where that line was drawn.
HAASS: Peter, I was struck when I read the book, though, about another area where politics and policy came into some friction, which was when Secretary Baker at treasury. I might have my years wrong or maybe it is when he was chief of staff, and his relationship with the then Fed Chairman Paul Volcker over questions of interest rates. Then that to me was really interesting. I didn't know that piece of the history. Well, why don't you talk about that for a second?
GLASSER: Yeah, I mean, that was an example that seems to rhyme with current events in a very different direction, where you had the secretary of the treasury openly, you know, essentially pushing a policy on the chairman of the federal reserve. Not only that, but, you know, in the appointments to the Federal Reserve Board, essentially, you know, trying to rearrange the politics of the board and only being forced to stop when there was a brewing rebellion on his hands, and he didn't want to have be responsible for the chairman of the fed quitting.
And so, you know, a friend of ours who is much more expert on these subjects than we are, had the same reaction that you did when he was reading the book. He literally was like, you're tweeting like, holy cow, I can't believe, you know, there's this echo of Trump's. Now of course, you know, Jim Baker wasn't tweeting in public. You know, he tweeting at the chairman of the fed (Laughs), which you know, we've all forgotten because so much has happened since but was one of the more remarkable aspects of President Trump's approach to someone he actually pointed to hand the federal reserve, right.
HAASS: The closest thing your book came to a regret or maybe second thoughts, I thought was after the Reagan shooting. And whether the twenty-fifth amendment ought to have been invoked. Why don't you say a little bit about that, because I again, I was struck by that.
BAKER: Well, of course, Baker had just taken over the chief of staff. He was on day seventy I think it was running Reagan's white house and he had come to this task, somebody who'd run not one but two campaigns against Ronald Reagan up to that point, right. Well, Gerald Ford at the republican convention in seventy-six and George H.W. Bush during the 1980 primaries, and yet Reagan. And it says a lot about Reagan, decides to take Jim Baker on as his number one staff person, despite that. But he was obviously in a tenuous place still at that moment trying to prove himself in a white house filled with Reaganites who didn't think he was one of them, didn't think he was sufficiently loyal.
So for, he sits and he goes, he's at the hospital, George Washington Hospital after Reagan has been taken into surgery and he ducks into a broom closet with Lyn Nofziger and Ed Meese to discuss, you know, do we invoke the twenty-fifth amendment or not? Do we formally hand power to George H.W. Bush as the Vice President or not? And Baker's take is no, we don't do it. And it’s interesting because his partly political, because he doesn't want it both his friend's interest, George Bush's interest, he doesn't want to look like Bush's grasping at power, and his own interest, he doesn't want to look like he is, his loyalty to bush is greater than his loyalty to Reagan.
So he says, no, we don't do it. And Meese and Nofziger agree. I think today, he recognizes that as a matter of good policy, that was not the right call. He said that to us at one point, during one of our interviews, obviously, if the president is under anesthesia, but he's not capable, you know, performing the duties of the office. But he thinks that matter of politics, it was still the right thing to do, because it did send a signal that nobody was trying to take advantage of the moment to Reagan's detriment.
And Bush, through his credit, I always remember this story. Bush flies back from Texas. He's in Texas at the time giving a speech, flies into Andrews and then taken by helicopter by marine two to land on the south lawn, you get them there as quick as possible. And Bush says no, I don't do that. You fly me to the vice president's residence. I'll take a motorcade like I always do. Only the president lands on the south lawn. And that's a small thing, and yet, so important, and so telling about both Bush and Baker, that they were just desperately eager not to do anything that looked like they were presuming in this moment of crisis. I think it worked for both of their benefits, because both of them were seen more at that point as members of the team than they hadn't been before.
MEACHAM: Got through one detail and if y'all are anything like me, you can't remember what you actually wrote in the book or not. But I don't know if this is on the record. I mean, it's on the record. But you may remember, so he was flying back from Fort Worth and lands. And if he had taken that marine two to the south lawn, he would have landed right about 7pm Eastern time. And as he remembered it, if the argument being made to him, to the vice president was, it's right when the news audience will be the biggest, and you will be coming in to take charge. And forty-one said many years later, can you imagine how Nancy would have felt about that?
HAASS: Thanks. Sometimes the best things are the things you don't do. We've got time for at least one more question and some reminiscences. So let's do it.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Elizabeth Pond. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
HAASS: Beth you have to unmute.
STAFF: It looks like we're having some difficulty with that line. We'll take the next question from John Barry.
Q: Yes, thanks for this excellent discussion. I want to go back to what Peter said about the Cheney, Baker, Scowcroft breakfast. You know, I was served as the military assistant to secretary of defense at the time, and I was just actually struck how well, we worked hard to get those done, but how well those were done and historically, how significant is, because there was never a leak from any of those meetings. They met you know alone, and they didn't meet with any assistance and significantly witnessed that relationship historically.
GLASSER: Well, if you mean, especially with incorporating Secretary Cheney as well, I'm struck by the fact that, you know, the two have remained personal friends. And even if their politics diverge by the second Bush administration, that it was almost a mock how you can constructively disagree, and have a robust policy debate that's not papered over, which I think is a healthy and important thing, certainly, in the environment we're existing in right now. That remains kind of one of the crucial questions for our system going forward is how do you have a healthy and constructive debate and not have a president whose surrounded by "yes men" and sycophants and yet a way to move on once that discussion and debate has been had?
You know, I will say that one of our very favorite stories in the book is when Secretary Baker thought that Dick Cheney was sort of veering too much into his turf and his territory. There was no more charged political issue in the early months of the Bush administration, and the question of what kind of Soviet policy we're going to have. There was a pause that was, you know, had all of Washington in a tizzy over the question of, you know, where we're going to continue with Reagan's policy toward Gorbachev, was there going to be a new, more skeptical line towards Gorbachev's reforms. Finally, they were moving forward Baker's meeting with Shevardnadze for the first time.
And then Dick Cheney goes on television. He goes on CNN, and he is openly questioning Gorbachev's prospects and viability and whether his reforms are really going to be lasting. And Baker blows a gasket. He's furious, he calls up Cheney who told this story to us when we interviewed him for the book and he says, you know, Baker said, you know, get out of my lane never do it. Cheney says he remembers apologizing to Baker saying absolutely, I understand it. What struck me was that, that was not enough for Jim Baker. And he also then immediately calls over to the White House, he calls over to Scowcroft and he says, you know, Dick Cheney has just screwed up our whole policy here. I want you to dump on deck with all possible alacrity.
BAKER: Dump on deck with all alacrity (Laughs)
MEACHAM: Which is you're asking about Baker's vision. The only other statement I can think of who used alacrity a lot with Killian Corleone move.
BAKER: It is yeah.
HAASS: Well also that's, those breakfasts and the relationship there is in that administration, people are always struck by the difference between Dick Cheney and forty-one, and Dick Cheney and forty-three. And a lot of that has to do with center of gravity, the center of gravity and forty-one's presidency was Baker, Scowcroft, Colin Powell to some extent, that it was a moderate centrist center of gravity. And Dick Cheney, if he had wanted to depart from it would have been the odd man out. The center of gravity and forty-three's presidency, and his white house was, well shall we say, quite different. And it allowed, if you will, a different Dick Cheney to come to the fore. So we've got about a minute left. I feel authors ought to get the last word. So how does Secretary Baker view this book? And does he think basically you got him right? Does he think there's some places is, if he were here talking with, that he's cranky with his, with the co-authors here?
BAKER: (Laughs) Well, you know, the thing is Baker is so clever of course. He understands that if he were to say publicly he liked the book that would hurt the reputation of the journals who wrote it, because we're not supposed to write a book that he would like. He understand that. And yet, at the same time, I think that he's been very generous with us, and he has said that to us privately that he's been, he thinks the book is fair. He doesn't like everything in it, and he doesn't agree with everything in it. We obviously quote critics in it, we obviously present awards and all portrayal. His public line is, I didn't mean all the words. But we think it's a fair book. And he's still speaking to us. So I suppose that's the ultimate test.
HAASS: So when the Baker family gets together at thanksgiving this year, and the two of you are there, because you're all related, it'll be okay.
BAKER: Cousin Jim will be welcomed at the table now (Laughs)
HAASS: Well, again, congratulations on the book. Really, it's a wonderful read up to some extraordinary history. So thank you both. Congratulations both on doing it and staying together. Thanks for doing this today. Jon, thank you as well for joining us. As we like to say any more fun at the Council would be both illegal and uncharacteristic. So thank you for joining us. And everybody stay safe and stay well under these rather extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. Have a good day.
BAKER: Thank you, everybody. Thank you.