Twenty years out of the game, James Baker admits that he knows nothing about the social-media revolution that has overtaken political campaigns. A young colleague recently bragged to him about his thousand-plus followers on Twitter.
“I didn’t even know what that was!” the former secretary of state and Treasury secretary said Tuesday night, with more than a hint of pride. No, siree: “I’m not a tweeter.”
Yet on this evening, the great Texas master of Beltway politics — especially circa the Reagan-Bush years — gladly submitted to the gentler, old-school version of a Reddit Ask Me Anything: a wide-ranging, gruff-talking onstage interview about his life and career, as part of a glittering Washington fundraiser for Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.
On NSA surveillance: He’s troubled by “the domestic stuff,” but “I’m not offended that we spy on our allies. They spy on us.”
On tea party members: They lend the Republicans much-needed emotion and energy but only “as long as they operate within the party.”
On Syria: “I am not in favor of going into any more wars in the Middle East. I think we’ve done enough of that for a while.” Big applause filled the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for that one.
But it was a big night. Texans do it up big, and with this event, the Lone Star hospital took the pomp of a normal Washington wonk-gala and amplified it by 10 percent or so. Tom Brokaw hosted, fellow blue-chip anchorman Bob Schieffer interviewed Baker — and no less than Henry Kissinger was enlisted to introduce and lightly roast the honoree. (Kissinger recalled their first encounter, in 1976. He said that Baker, then chairman of Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign, gave a speech in which he “assured the restive troops that, if reelected, [Ford] would surely not reappoint me as secretary of state.” Ever the diplomat, Baker managed to convince Kissinger that “what was reported in the media was totally out of context.”)
There were also video testimonials from President Obama and all the living former secretaries of state, and a glee club from Princeton (Baker’s alma mater) was shipped in for the occasion. All the living former presidents and first ladies lent their names as “honorary chairs” — a particularly fancy bit of gala-speak for giving their blessing but not actually there.
It was tempting to wonder whether MD Anderson — a national fundraising powerhouse that taps donors for $200 million to $250 million a year — was barreling onto the turf of such area rivals as Georgetown’s Lombardi Cancer Center or Johns Hopkins’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center to siphon away our boomtown’s philanthropic dollars, I-drink-your-milkshake style. But in fact, though a few Beltway lobbyists made the scene, much of the crowd was made up of Anderson’s regular patrons — from Texas, Singapore, Canada, Mexico — who had been airlifted to town for the occasion, our capital city just playing the role of a theme-appropriate event space.
“We thought that, among other things, Washington, D.C., is an appropriate city to honor [Baker] given his history here, a Houston man done well,” said Patrick Mulvey, MD Anderson’s vice president for development. “This is not just a Washington audience — this is a worldwide audience.” With tickets starting at $1,000, the center expected to raise $4.5 million Tuesday night.
At 83, Baker is grayer than you remember, but still fit and swaggering, with a loose, chatty manner in front of a mike. A longtime member of MD Anderson’s board of advisers, he noted that the cancer center was first established in what used to be his grandfather’s home; both he and his wife, Susan, have in recent years been successfully treated for cancer at the institution.
He mused about the closeness of the 1976 race — “you turn 10,000 votes around in Ohio and Hawaii, and Ford would have beat Carter” — and the irony of Reagan picking him as a chief of staff, despite the fact that Baker had run primary campaigns against him in two consecutive races. “They wanted somebody who understood Washington,” said Baker, noting, though: “You could have picked me up off the floor with a blotter” when they asked. “I don’t think it could ever happen again.”
He fretted about today’s “political dysfunction”: “We used to be able to get things done — each party would compromise when they had to.”
The culprits, he said: redistricting, the rise of partisan media and a lack of sociability. “Our congressmen . . . they’re only here from Tuesday to Thursday — they don’t bring their families up, you don’t have the social interaction between parties that we used to.”
He bragged a bit about the Persian Gulf War. “Well, I tell people, and this may sound a tad arrogant,” he said, “but this was a textbook example of how to fight a war”: Tell people what you’re going to do, get their support and strictly define your mission.
“Then guess what?” he said. “You get other people to pay for it! We ought to try it with some of our future wars.”
Of what, Schieffer asked, was he most proud? Baker described a cartoon from after George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 race to Bill Clinton, marking the end of Baker’s remarkable 12-year Jedi mastery of this town.
As he recalled, it read: “He got out of Washington, and was never indicted.”