Former Secretary of State James Baker receives Dole Leadership Prize, recounts his first forays into public service

photo by: Kathy Hanks

James Baker speaks about his varied career in politics, including serving as the nation's 61st secretary of state under George H.W. Bush., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. Baker is the recipient of the 2018 Dole Leadership Prize.

At a young age, James Baker was advised to stay out of politics. Instead, he built a life around public service.

“I ended up chairing five presidential campaigns for three different Republican presidents,” Baker said. He also was named President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and went on to be President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff.

“If you asked me in 1973 if there was any chance I would do that, I would have said hell no,” Baker said.

On Wednesday, Baker was at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas to receive the 2018 Dole Leadership Prize. The award is presented annually to an individual or group whose public service leadership inspires others.

Baker is the 16th recipient and the first secretary of state to receive the honor. Past recipients include Bush, former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum.

Sitting before a packed audience, Baker answered questions from Bill Lacy, the Dole Institute’s director, who worked in the White House with Baker during Reagan’s administration.

Baker told the audience of his upbringing in Houston, where his family instilled a strong work ethic.

“They told me politics was a dirty business,” he said. “Politics wasn’t for good attorneys. My grandfather had a mantra he recited to the young attorneys who came to work for the family firm. He said, ‘If you want to be a good lawyer, work hard, study and keep out of politics.’ Oftentimes, people ask why I didn’t take my grandfather’s advice, and I say, ‘What, are you kidding? Two out of three ain’t bad.'”

Baker spent the first two decades of his adult life practicing law. However, his course changed after his wife died of cancer.

A friend — Baker’s doubles partner in tennis, in fact — thought Baker needed something to take his mind off his grief, and suggested an outlet, Baker said.

“He wanted me to help him run for the Senate in Texas,” Baker said of that friend, Bush. “I said, ‘That’s great, George, except I don’t know anything about politics and I am a Democrat.'”

But he helped Bush out anyway, and that was the first of many successful political campaigns he led. Baker’s long career in politics gave him insight into the administrations not only of Bush, but also of Reagan and Gerald Ford.

At Wednesday’s award ceremony, Baker had nothing but glowing things to say about Bush — though he admitted he may be a little biased.

“I ran all his political campaigns, he is my daughter’s godfather, and with all that hanging out, I have to say he is the best one-term president this country ever had. Look at the record — he is one of the best presidents of all time,” Baker said.

It was Bush’s foreign policy work that particularly impressed Baker.

“After the 40 years of the Cold War, you couldn’t have anyone better prepared than George Bush,” Baker said. “He made it clear from the beginning we were not going to do any gloating. He knew we still had a lot of business to do with (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and Foreign Minister (Eduard) Shevardnadze, and he wasn’t going to stick it in their eye.”

Now, however, Baker fears that relations between the U.S. and Russia have taken a turn for the worse.

“Today, we are in a new Cold War with Russia,” Baker said. “No doubt about it, ladies and gentlemen, we are back in a Cold War. Russia is buzzing our aircraft. It’s not good. But for 15 years after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism, we had really good relations with Russia and NATO. It’s all gone now, and it’s regrettable.”

On the country’s current political state, Baker said it was important for leaders to speak consistently, and for the chief executive to be surrounded by talented people.

More than anything, Baker stressed that people must stay engaged in politics and public service.

“Politics is the way you earn the right to practice public policy; the way you earn the right to become a policymaker,” Baker said. “When people demean politics I take it as an insult. It’s our system. It can be ugly. It has been pretty ugly lately. But it’s better than anything else.”


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