Secretary of State James A. Baker, III served as President Ronald Reagan's White House Chief of Staff, and Treasury Secretary. He had managed two Republican Presidential primary campaigns against Reagan, and remarkably, as a compliment to Baker's abilities, Reagan tapped him for the top job in the White House when he assumed the Presidency in 1981.Baker reflected on that experience, and the meaning of Ronald Reagan on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Fox News Anchor and Senior Correspondent Eric Shawn talked with Mr. Baker, who was at the James A. Baker III Institute For Public Policy, at Rice University in Houston.
Eric Shawn: “Mr. Secretary, Welcome. Reagan at 100. What do you think was his greatest impact?”
James Baker: "His greatest impact, or legacy perhaps, is that he restored America's pride and confidence in itself. We were at a really low-point in this country when he came on the scene as President. He governed us with great dexterity for eight years. We had eight years of peace and complete prosperity. We ended up, as a matter of fact by virtue of his policies, of having eighteen years of sustained, non-inflationary growth. And he just turned out to be a wonderful two-term President. Part of that, I think was due, or a great deal of it was due to his sunny nature and his optimism, and the fact, frankly, Eric, that he was just simply a beautiful human being."
Shawn: "You say 'a beautiful human being,' that's not often remarked about Presidents, what do you mean by that?"
Baker: "I mean that he was someone who, all of us who worked for him, felt an affinity for that approached genuine affection. He made people feel good, he was totally good to his staff, and loyal to his staff. He wanted loyalty up but he gave loyalty down, and he made people feel good, Eric. You could go into the most divisive meetings in the world where people would be arguing various points, the President would have to rule, he would rule one way or the other, and everybody would go out of the meeting feeling good, feeling like they had been given their due. He was completely guileless, totally without guile, and that's what I mean by 'a beautiful human being.' He respected everyone, treated everyone kindly, in a generous way. He was just a wonderful person to be with and a wonderful person to work for. I was an extraordinarily fortunate individual, given the fact that I ran two campaigns against him before he asked me to be his White House Chief of Staff, and then of course he asked me to be his Treasury Secretary. I served him for eight years, and it was eight of the very best years of my life."
Shawn: "That is pretty remarkable, you worked for Gerald Ford, of course, and for George H.W. Bush, yet he took you in. What was that like for you?"
Baker: "How broad gauged can you be? Who could be more broad gauged, than to hire, as his White House Chief of Staff, someone who had run two campaigns, for two different people, against him. And for me, it was startling to say the least, when he broached the subject to me, you had to pick me up off the floor! But I think that what he wanted was someone who had been in Washington before, who knew the system, who knew how it worked, and he wanted that experience. That's what I mean by being guileless, and not holding grudges. He never held grudges. He forgave people, very, very quickly, and he was just an extraordinarily generous and kind human being."
Shawn: "Do you think that we have lost some of that today, perhaps, in the current political climate?"
Baker: "Well, you know, I do think the current political climate is different than it was then. In those days, we would fight like hell during the day, and then after 5 o'clock he and Tip O'Neill would retire to the residence for a drink and a few Irish stories, but they never agreed on anything, on a policy standpoint. They fought like hell! But they did so agreeably, they disagreed agreeably, and in those days we could do that. We could disagree agreeably. Our political adversaries were not necessarily our political enemies. Today, I'm afraid, we have lost a lot of that. You don't see as much reaching across the aisle. There is a certain incivility in our politics today, which is quite regrettable, I think."
Shawn: "And finally, just a bit left, Mr. Secretary, what do you think his lasting legacy has been? "
Baker: "Part of his legacy, and a very big part of it, is he restored our confidence as a nation. He taught us how to be proud again, he taught us how to think big again, well he taught us how to love! I have to tell you, I think he taught us how to love. So his legacy, in terms of concrete achievement, of course is that he led this nation for eight years, eight years of complete peace and prosperity, and that's no small feat. But in terms of his character and things like that, he really set a wonderful example for Americans, both past and future."
Shawn: "Teaching us how to love is a marvelous tribute, Mr. Secretary we thank you for talking to us today, and by the way you are at your Institute, one of the top think tanks in the nation, the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, in Houston. Mr. Secretary thanks for joining us today."
Baker: "Thanks for having me, Eric."