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"WORK HARD, STUDY ... AND KEEP OUT OF POLITICS!"
By JAMES A. BAKER, III Steve Fiffer
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2006
James Baker, III
All right reserved.
Chapter One "NUMBER ONE, I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT POLITICS"
The presidential election was the tightest in a century. As the results came in, it was apparent that a small number of votes for my candidate or his opponent would swing the contest one way or the other. When I finally went to bed at 3:00 A.M., I was certain I would never see another race for president decided by such a narrow margin. Boy, was I wrong.
The 1976 race between Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford was close. If there had been a shift of fewer than 5,600 votes in Ohio and 3,700 in Hawaii, Ford would have retained the presidency, winning the electoral vote while losing the popular election. But '76 now pales in comparison to the 2000 race between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush. That one was decided by 537 votes in Florida and a 7-2 margin in the U.S. Supreme Court more than a month after the balloting. As most everyone knows, although Gore won the popular vote, Bush prevailed in the Electoral College.
In 1970, as a forty-year-old Houston corporate lawyer who had little interest and no experience in politics, I could never have imagined that I would be intimately involved in either of these presidential contests, much less both. Nor could I ever have dreamed that I would lead five successive presidential campaigns for three different candidates. At the beginning of 1975, I was still practicing law in my hometown. By that fall, I was in Washington, D.C., second in command at the Department of Commerce. And by the summer of '76, I was campaign chairman for the Ford-Dole ticket. Who'da thunk it?
Before losing narrowly to Carter, we had come back from a double-digit deficit after the conventions. Many observers believe that if Ford-Dole had been Ford-Reagan, we would have won. So why didn't Ford tap Reagan for the second spot and create a dream ticket?
The actor-turned-politician from California was the obvious choice. He had a huge core of supporters, and he was a great campaigner. Moreover, he had just missed getting the nomination himself at what turned out to be the last closely contested national convention in this nation's history.
President Ford was not happy that Governor Reagan had mounted such a strong challenge against a sitting president. But other nominees have chosen runner-ups after bitter contests, particularly if those runner-ups could improve the chances of victory in November. John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson that way. While the chemistry between Ford and Reagan was not good, that alone didn't impel Ford to bypass Reagan. Most accounts say there was another reason.
Early during President Reagan's first term, when I was his White House chief of staff, he and I discussed this. "You know, Mr. President," I said, as we sat together alone in the Oval Office one day, "if President Ford had asked you to run with him, he would have won, and you might never have been president."
"You're right," the president responded. "But I have to tell you, Jim, if he had asked, I'd have felt duty-bound to run."
"President Ford didn't ask you," I replied, "because we received word from your campaign that you would join him for a unity meeting only on the condition that he wouldn't offer you the vice presidency. And besides that, you very publicly shut down the movement by your supporters in Kansas City to draft you for the vice presidential nomination."
"Look," President Reagan said, "I really did not want to be vice president, and I said so at the time. But I don't have any recollection of telling anyone to pass a message to President Ford not to offer me the spot. If he had asked, I would have felt duty-bound to say yes."
I was shocked. How different history might have been. Given the intensity of their primary battle, Ford really didn't want Reagan as his running mate, but the president might have asked if he had thought Reagan would accept. And with a Ford-Reagan ticket in 1976, I think two presidential portraits might be missing from the White House walls today-those of Jimmy Carter ... and Ronald Reagan.
This conversation about the vice presidency occurred early in President Reagan's tenure and was revisited several times over the years. As anyone who knew him well would attest, Ronald Reagan was completely without guile. What you saw was what you got. I have no reason to believe he wasn't being totally up front with me. Still, I must add here that a few years ago one of his close friends and advisers, former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, told me that he still believes candidate Reagan made it clear in 1976 that he didn't want to be offered the second spot. But if, as President Reagan told me, he didn't tell anyone to pass on that message to the Ford camp, this would suggest his staff did that on its own. Why? Perhaps they knew he didn't want to be vice president, but would have felt he could not turn down a direct offer from the president. Or perhaps they simply reasoned that if a Ford-Reagan ticket had won, their man would have been too old to run for president in 1980 or 1984. (He wasn't, of course, and ran successfully in both of those years, although without having first served as vice president.)
My roles as presidential campaign chairman and White House chief of staff would not have sat very well with another James Addison Baker, my grandfather. Nor would my view that all Americans should consider public service. A successful lawyer known as the "Captain," he admonished all who joined his firm to "work hard, study, and keep out of politics," which he viewed as a somewhat unseemly undertaking that really good lawyers left to others. He was an imposing figure who helped transform Houston from a regional cotton market and rail hub into a vibrant seaport and the capital of the U.S. oil industry. In the process, he turned a local law practice into a preeminent Texas firm that would later expand worldwide.
With due respect to the Captain, however, not keeping out of politics turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Although my unplanned entry into public life was occasioned in part by personal tragedy, I found I had a strong predilection and passion for what the former New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith called "the power game." Over the years, I witnessed the exercise of more power than I would have ever dreamed possible, but was often reminded (sometimes the hard way) to keep a sense of perspective about it all.
No one was better at keeping me humble than my mother, Bonner Means Baker. On my visits to Houston in the late 1980s and early nineties, she invariably asked: "Now, darling, tell me exactly, what is it you do?"
"Mom, I am secretary of state."
"Of the United States of America?"
"You don't mean it!"
Then she would add, "Well, you know, dear, if your father had lived, he would never have let you go to Washington."
My mother lived to the handsome age of ninety-six. She and my dad had tried to have children for thirteen years before I came along, so she doted on me and my younger sister, Bonner, when we finally arrived-me on April 28, 1930, and Bonner some eighteen months later. I talked baby talk until I was three or four years old, and I called my mother "Mamish." She was a warm, spirited, and elegant woman, not indifferent to fashion. I am still not sure whether her affectionate cross-examination of me in her twilight years stemmed from a failing mind or her enduring sense of humor.
Mother was only fifteen when she and my father, James A. Baker, Jr., met at a high school dance in Houston. It was love at first sight, she always said. They were engaged for five and one-half years. My dad wanted to be in a position to support his bride and, eventually, a family, but after he finished Princeton in 1915 and got his law degree at the University of Texas in 1917, World War I intervened. They married on August 4, 1917, about ten months before he shipped out as a young army lieutenant for the trenches of France. I remember Mother telling me that in his absence she comforted herself every day by repeating a verse from the 91st Psalm: "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee."
Like my mother, Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to joke, but he also had an austere demeanor and was a strict disciplinarian. And like his father, he, too, had a saying: "Prior preparation prevents poor performance." He called this the "Five Ps." It's a simple aphorism, the sort of thing adults tell children, then forget. People are often surprised to hear a man my age recite it, and without embarrassment. But this was a gift from my father that has helped me in one way or another almost every day of my adult life.
Dad was an intercollegiate wrestling champion and fine pole-vaulter while at Princeton. No doubt his training as an athlete and his military service reinforced his views about the importance of discipline and preparation, about doing your best in the fleeting time you are given on this earth.
Dad's fifth-year Princeton reunion book features the photographs of many classmates who never returned from the bloody battlefields of Europe. He came back, however, as an infantry captain and a genuine war hero. He once ordered some in his company to clear out an enemy trench. When they balked, he went in by himself, armed only with his .45-caliber service revolver, and captured two German soldiers. I had that pistol for many years until it was stolen, and I still have his World War I helmet and uniform.
My sister and I always addressed Dad with respect, but behind his back, my friends and I called him "Warden." He expected good manners, hard work, and deference to adult authority, and he regarded corporal punishment as a useful way to help us see the benefits of satisfying those expectations. The culture of the 1930s supported this approach. In those days, children did what their parents asked them to. Sometimes he spanked me. Occasionally, he would throw cold water on me in bed if I didn't get up when I should.
I'll leave it to the child-rearing experts to debate the pros and cons of this sort of upbringing, now considered old-fashioned and too harsh. All I can say is that he was a terrific dad. We had a wonderful relationship, I loved him dearly, and he set me on the right path. Many of my contemporaries had their lives ruined because their parents gave them too much money and too little discipline. That was never a problem in the Baker household.
Dad also loved to hunt and fish. From the time I was six, he and I spent many hours together in duck blinds. They are superb classrooms for teaching other forms of discipline, including the patience necessary to know exactly the right time to pull the trigger. After his love and his emphasis on the Five Ps, sharing his passion for the outdoors was Dad's greatest gift to me.
As a young competitive tennis player, I didn't question my father's orders to stay on the court after matches and practice backhand after backhand. Nor did I question his decision to send me across the country to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to his alma mater, the Hill School. I didn't even protest when he told me to join his old undergraduate social fraternity at the University of Texas, Phi Delta Theta. Here I was in law school, twenty-four years old, just out of the Marine Corps, married with a child, and having to go through a Hell Week hazing in which college kids younger than I was poured raw eggs down my throat and made me sit bare-assed on a block of ice.
I didn't rebel. When I was growing up, our objective was to please our parents. Mother and Dad knew best, and we didn't argue with them. But we certainly didn't always do everything we were told. Like most teenagers, then and now, I broke curfew more than a few times.
One irony in my father's life is that he earned his military rank of captain in the most difficult way possible, but for my grandfather, "Captain" was an honorific title bestowed by a ceremonial Houston militia he joined in the late 1800s. After the Civil War, many prominent men in the South were forever known as "General Smith" and "Colonel Jones." My grandfather's militia was formed, I have heard, to give younger men a way to wear outlandish uniforms, join parades, conduct balls, and (not least) claim military rank of their own-all without the grim necessity of being actual soldiers.
I remember the Captain as a heavyset man who always smelled of cigars. He sat on the boards of many major banks, utility companies, and railroads, and represented them as a lawyer. Well known in Texas, he rose to national prominence in 1900 when he became the central figure in one of the most sensational scandals of his era.
In a New York murder trial, he proved that a butler and an unscrupulous lawyer had poisoned William Marsh Rice, a wealthy Texas merchant, with mercury and chloroform, then claimed Rice's fortune under a forged will. My grandfather had been Mr. Rice's lawyer, and his efforts restored the victim's original will, which endowed William Marsh Rice Institute, a "university of the first class" that Rice had chartered in Houston in 1891. Rice Institute (now Rice University) opened in 1912, and my grandfather served as its first chairman of the board of trustees for fifty years.
The Captain was the second James A. Baker in our family. The first, his father, was born in 1816 near Florence, Alabama, to Elijah and Jane Baker. Family lore says they descended from Scottish immigrants. They were part of the great migration of early Americans out of the thirteen original states to the unsettled forests and plains out west. They were, it seems, a well-educated family. In Alabama, James apprenticed to a lawyer and appeared to have prospects for a good career. In April 1852, however, he abruptly left for Texas, apparently in grief over the sudden death of his bride of less than two years. During the Civil War, he served as a judge. Afterward, he joined a small Houston law firm-the one that to this day bears his name, Baker Botts. He and his second wife, Rowena, are buried in Huntsville, Texas, not far from his friend General Sam Houston.
I will not pretend that I grew up under modest circumstances. My mother's father, J. C. Means, was in the timber, oil, and cotton business. He was not particularly successful, but the Bakers were reasonably well-to-do. Each generation had built on the success of the previous one. We lived in a nice two-story house near Rice University and belonged to two country clubs. The family owned a considerable amount of Houston real estate and made other good investments.
Still, I don't think my parents spoiled me. Dad was quite frugal. He understood that it was easier to spend a dollar than to make it. As a result, we didn't lead the stereotyped bigger-than-life Texas existence. No mansion. No big cars. And no big allowance for me. Dad invested most of his money. Yet he did spend, without hesitation, for his children's education or for things my mother wanted; material possessions for himself or his children were meaningless, something else I inherited from him. But I've become much better as the years have gone by and I have been able to accumulate some means of my own.
There were occasional extravagances in my childhood. Some were outlandish: when I was a young boy, my mother once had me dressed in a pink linen smock for a portrait by a member of the French Academy. Some were just plain fun: when the University of Texas played Texas A&M in football, the Captain often took us to the game in a private rail car arranged through one of his railroad clients.
There was one domain in which my father was willing to give me money. When I was a teenager, he said he would pay me $1,000 if I didn't smoke until I was twenty-one and another $1,000 if I didn't drink alcohol before that age. I didn't collect, though I managed to wait until I was eighteen for my first taste of hard liquor. I was not a habitual smoker until I went into the Marine Corps. At breaks in our training, the drill instructors would always say, "The smoking lamp is lit"-meaning it was okay to smoke. Most everyone did, so I did, too.
It's somewhat remarkable that I didn't start drinking the moment my parents dropped me off at the Hill School. My first year there was tough. I entered as a junior and didn't know anybody. Most classmates had already been there for two years and had established friendships. I was a new boy. All my friends were back in Houston. I even had to wear a beanie, and every time I put it on, it reminded me that I was not a part of the old boys' club.
By senior year, I was much more at ease. I was elected to the student government and captained the tennis team. I also made friendships that continue to this day. My grades were good, but not outstanding. Still, I managed to get into the university I wanted and that my father had attended: Princeton. Two centuries after it was founded by colonial Presbyterian clerics, it was still the destination of choice for many young American men of Scottish heritage, particularly those from the South.
Excerpted from "WORK HARD, STUDY ... AND KEEP OUT OF POLITICS!" by JAMES A. BAKER, III Steve Fiffer Copyright © 2006 by James Baker, III. Excerpted by permission.
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