Biography and History

James Addison Baker III was a central figure in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Baker served as Reagan's White House Chief of Staff from 1980 to 1985 and Secretary of the Treasury from 1985 to 1988, and as Bush's Secretary of State from 1989-1992. Baker also led presidential campaigns for both Bush and Reagan, as well as Gerald Ford, over the course of five consecutive presidential elections from 1976 to 1992. Along with Bush, he was one of the few people to retain high level government positions for all twelve years of the Reagan-Bush era. He ended the Reagan-Bush years in the same position as he started, as Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant to the President.

Baker was born on April 28, 1930, into an established Houston, Texas family. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather, Captain James Baker, joined the venerable Baker Botts law firm in the 19th century. Captain Baker, who played a prominent role in the history of Rice University and was also member of the Rice Institute Board of Trustees in 1891, eventually became Chairman of the Board. Baker's grandfather is reported to have advised his grandson, and other young lawyers, to "work hard, study hard, and stay out of politics." Baker's father, James A. Baker Jr., also joined Baker Botts, after graduating from Princeton University in 1915 and serving in World War I.

James A. Baker III, like his father, attended the Hill School in Pennsylvania and Princeton University. He studied classics at Princeton and graduated in 1952. While on a trip to Bermuda with the Princeton rugby team he met Mary Stuart McHenry, whom he married in 1953. After two years of active duty as a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, Baker entered the University of Texas School of Law at Austin. He received his J.D. with honors in 1957 and practiced law with the Houston firm of Andrews and Kurth from 1957 to 1975. Baker has said that he was "apolitical" during his early law career; he told the New Yorker that he was "too busy trying to make it in competitive law practice" to become heavily involved in politics and that he often voted Democratic (Newhouse, p. 62).

Baker and others have remarked that he would not have become involved in politics if not for the influence of his first wife, Mary Stuart, who was active in the Republican Party and had worked on George H. W. Bush's congressional campaigns. Baker and Bush had become friendly by the late 1950s and were often tennis partners at the Houston Country Club. When Bush decided to run for the Senate in 1969, Baker considered running for his friend's vacated congressional seat. Bush strongly endorsed the idea, but Baker decided against the campaign when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died in February 1970.

Baker's first political experience came when he served as Harris County Campaign Chairman for Bush's Senate campaign. Bush had encouraged his friend to become active in the campaign in part to help relieve his grief over the loss of his wife. Lloyd Bentsen defeated Bush in the election, but Baker's work led to roles as State Finance Chairman for the Republican Party of Texas in 1971 and Gulf Coast Regional Chairman for the Nixon campaign in 1972. Baker returned to the full-time practice of law in 1973 and 1974. He also remarried in 1973. His second wife, Susan Garrett Winston, had been a close friend of his first wife.

In the summer of 1975 President Ford nominated Baker to be Under-Secretary of Commerce. Although he has never acknowledged it, Bush, who was then serving as United States Ambassador to China, is widely believed to have lobbied Commerce Secretary Rogers Morton to find a place for Baker in the administration. Baker stayed at the Commerce Department for only nine months, but served as Acting Secretary of the department for three of those months.

In the spring of 1976 Ford asked Baker to leave the Commerce Department to work on his presidential campaign. In May Baker resigned and became Deputy Campaign Chairman for delegate operations for the Ford Campaign. In the close primary race between Ford and Ronald Reagan, the position of chief delegate hunter was more important than in most campaigns, and Baker was considered extremely efficient and effective. Ford won the nomination by a few delegate votes at the last contested convention of either major political party to date.

In August 1976, just a few weeks after the convention and despite his limited experience running campaigns at a national level, Baker was appointed National Campaign Chairman of the Ford Campaign. At the time the campaign was struggling. Ford trailed Jimmy Carter by 30 points in the polls and Baker was the third campaign chairman in five months. When Ford made up large deficits in the polls, eventually losing by only one percent of the total vote, Baker was considered to have done a remarkable job.

Baker returned to Andrews, Kurth, Campbell, and Jones in 1977 and briefly resumed law practice. Coming off the experience of running a presidential campaign Baker was, in his words, "bitten by the political bug" (Newhouse, p. 65). Baker briefly considered running for governor of Texas, but eventually set his sights on the attorney general's office. The 1978 Texas attorney general race is the only time Baker has himself run as a candidate for political office. Though Baker lost the race to conservative Democrat Mark White (who would later become governor of Texas) Baker's 44 percent of the vote was a more than credible showing; only two Republican candidates since Reconstruction had done as well in a "down-ballot" (any state office below the level of Governor or Senator) Texas race.

When George Bush began organizing a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1979, Baker was intimately involved. Even before his campaign for attorney general Baker had established a political action committee, the Fund for Limited Government, to help explore a possible Bush campaign, and in 1978 Baker and Bush had flown to California to inform Ronald Reagan that Bush would be running against him. With well-known opponents such as Reagan, Senate minority leader Howard Baker, and fellow Texan John Connally, Bush was met with skepticism until an unexpected win in the 1980 Iowa primary.

Despite Bush's early successes, including victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania, by May 1980 it was clear that Reagan would win the nomination. Baker is credited with accurately reading the situation and, eventually, helping to secure a spot for Bush on the Republican ticket as Reagan's running mate. Earlier in the campaign, in an effort to avoid offending the Reagan camp, Baker had discouraged use of the term "voodoo-economics" to describe Reagan's economic policies. In May, when the press questioned Baker about what he later described as "a decoy operation" in California, he admitted that the Bush Campaign had no real organization in the state. Although Bush would still deliberate whether to contest other upcoming primaries before leaving the race, the move essentially signaled the end of the campaign. Many believed that if Bush had contested Reagan's home state of California he would not have been selected as the vice-presidential nominee. Baker was asked to work on the Reagan-Bush campaign as a senior campaign advisor and was given responsibility for negotiating the format and number of the Reagan and Carter debates.

During the campaign, Baker's abilities caught the attention of key Reagan aides, including Mike Deaver. The day after the Reagan victory in November 1980, Reagan and Deaver told longtime aide Ed Meese, who had been Reagan's Chief of Staff in California, that Baker and not Meese would be Chief of Staff at the White House, with Meese serving as Reagan's counselor. Baker negotiated an agreement with Meese, even drafting a typed agreement which both men signed, that split the duties of the Chief of Staff and Counselor. Meese was given cabinet rank and supervision of the operations of the National Security Council staff and Domestic Policy staff, while Baker controlled the President's daily schedule and the flow of paper in and out of the White House. Although Baker's responsibilities seemed administrative on the surface, it soon became apparent that the agreement gave Baker a great deal of influence in political areas. Baker controlled liaison units, the political affairs office and the congressional affairs unit, and his early morning staff meetings became crucial to defining the daily agenda of the administration.

Baker is credited with creating and running an efficient and organized White House operation. Although he was sometimes criticized by the more conservative elements of the Republican Party, including some long-time Reagan supporters, he was often viewed as a steadying and moderating influence on the Reagan White House. He recruited and hired talented people from outside of the Reagan circle, including his deputy, Richard Darman. As during campaigns, he was credited with developing excellent relationships with the press. He also worked toward establishing strong relationships with key Congressional leaders; Baker has said he instituted a personal rule that by the end of each day, he would return every phone he received from any member of Congress. The Legislative Strategy Group created and led by Baker played a key role in the administration's early legislative victories, including the 1981 federal tax cut proposal and budget and congressional approval for the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWAC) planes to Saudi Arabia.

Baker headed Reagan's reelection efforts in 1984 in a campaign that was essentially run from the Chief of Staff's office in the White House. Following Reagan's landslide victory over Walter Mondale, Baker and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan engineered a job switch, arguing the switch would reinvigorate both men, while keeping both in key positions within the administration.

At the Treasury Department, Baker, along with Darman, whom Baker had brought from the White House, was heavily involved in the tax reform and deficit cutting measures of Reagan's second term. Late in 1985 he met with economic leaders of Great Britain, West Germany, France, and Japan, in order to discuss ways to jointly address problems resulting from an inflated value of the dollar. The meeting, which was initiated by Baker, was a departure from the more relaxed style of Regan and his staff, and resulted in an agreement to devalue the dollar, let other currencies rise, and coordinate regulation of interest rates. Canada and Italy also subsequently agreed to the same measures. The following year the ad hoc process was formalized and evolved into regularized "Group of Seven" (G7) meetings and efforts to discuss economic policy and other political issues.

The most dramatic occurrence of Baker's tenure at the Treasury Department centered on the Reagan Administration's efforts to enact tax reform legislation. Through negotiations with key members of Congress Baker and Darman were able to push forward legislation that was seen as strewn with political traps.

Toward the end of Reagan's second term, speculation began that Baker would leave the Treasury Department to take over George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. Baker stayed at the department through the primary season. He later said that although he "would have preferred to help my pal by keeping the economy on track rather than by requiring the patina of the pol," Bush always knew that Baker would be available to help his campaign in the general election. He left the Treasury Department on August 5 and took over the Bush Campaign shortly before the Republican Convention. A few days before the end of a sometimes bitter campaign, with Bush leading comfortably in the polls, Bush asked Baker to become his Secretary of State if he won the election. After Bush's victory Baker was easily confirmed by the Senate, and was sworn in as the 61st Secretary of State in January 1989.

As Secretary of State Baker traveled to 90 foreign countries as the United States confronted a number of unprecedented challenges and opportunities. As in his previous high level positions, Baker worked closely with a key group of trusted advisers and made it an early priority to establish good working relationships with Congress, efforts that paid off in his early attempts to forge a bipartisan agreement on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Baker's close relationship with Bush worked to Baker's advantage during his years at the State Department. He later wrote, while serving as Secretary of State, "I never worried about being undercut. I could operate without ever having to worry about looking over my shoulder or worry about my backside." (Baker, p. 21).

Baker's years as Secretary of State included some of the most important world events of the second half of the 20th century. Most of these events are chronicled in a wide variety of published sources, including Baker's own book, The Politics of Diplomacy. The book records Baker's reactions to, and efforts to manage, world events, including the Chinese repression in Tienanmen Square, the United States invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega, the release of Nelson Mandela and beginning of the end of Apartheid in South Africa, free elections in Nicaragua, and a peace agreement in El Salvador. Baker's efforts towards establishing peace in the Middle East led to a historic meeting between Palestinian and Israeli representatives at the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.

Foreign policy during the Bush years was dominated by historic changes in relations between the United States and Soviet Union. During Baker's time at the State Department the Berlin Wall was dismantled, Germany was reunified and brought into NATO, and the Soviet Union itself dissolved. Baker played a key role in the development of the "two plus four" plan and the talks that led to German reunification. He also established a personal rapport with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In 1989 the two met at a historic ministerial in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a meeting which Baker would later say was a key towards developing a "new atmosphere of trust." Baker and Shevardnadze's working relationship is also considered to have been instrumental in Shevardnadze's willingness to issue a joint statement condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and agreeing to an arms embargo without first clearing the position with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The two men also worked towards nuclear and strategic arms reduction agreements, which culminated in the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement (START) in July of 1991.

Baker was a central figure in negotiating and gaining support from a worldwide coalition of nations joined in opposition to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In January 1991, Baker met with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva in a last ditch effort to convince the Iraqis to withdraw. On January 16, the U.S. and Allied forces began Operation Desert Storm by launching massive air strikes on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. Thirty-seven countries contributed militarily or financially to the operation.

In the summer of 1992, with his campaign struggling, Bush asked Baker to return to the White House as Chief of Staff in order to manage his reelection efforts. Baker remained in the position until Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in January 1993.

Since leaving Washington Baker has held a number of positions in both public service and the private sector. From 1997 to 2004, Baker served as the Personal Envoy of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to seek a political solution to the conflict over Western Sahara. In 2003, Baker was appointed Special Presidential Envoy for President George W. Bush on the issue of Iraqi debt. In perhaps his most visible role since leaving Washington, Baker served as a chief spokesman and led George W. Bush's legal team during the recount of votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

As of January 2005 Baker was a senior partner in the law firm of Baker Botts and Senior Counselor to The Carlyle Group, a merchant banking firm in Washington, D.C. Baker also established and served as Honorary Chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, a non-partisan organization dedicated to the goal of helping bridge the gap between the theory and practice of public policy by drawing together experts from academia, government, the media, business, and non-governmental organizations.

Source: From the finding aid for MC197

  • Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project Records. 1994-2015 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC259

    The Princetoniana Committee was formed by the Alumni Council in 1981 with the mission of proactively collecting worthy items of Princetoniana on the University's behalf. The Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project (POHP) Records consist of oral history interview transcripts from two separate oral history projects and related materials.

  • Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project Records. 1994-2015 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC259

    The Princetoniana Committee was formed by the Alumni Council in 1981 with the mission of proactively collecting worthy items of Princetoniana on the University's behalf. The Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project (POHP) Records consist of oral history interview transcripts from two separate oral history projects and related materials.

  • James A. Baker III Papers. 1957-2011 (inclusive), 1972-1992 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC197

    James A. Baker III served in senior government positions under three United States Presidents and was a central figure in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s and early 1990s. Baker also led presidential campaigns for Presidents Gerald Ford, Reagan and Bush over the course of five consecutive presidential elections from 1976 to 1992. The papers document nearly every stage of Baker's career, including his work on presidential campaigns, his time as White House Chief of Staff for both Reagan and Bush, and his terms as Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan and Secretary of State under Bush.

  • James A. Baker III Oral History Collection. 1991-2016 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC212

    The James A. Baker III Oral History Project is a joint project run by the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton University and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. The collection consists of transcripts and audio files of interviews with individuals who knew and worked closely with James A. Baker III during his career in politics and public service.

  • Margaret Tutwiler diaries. 1989-1992 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC252

    Four diaries document the work and life of Margaret Tutwiler during her time as Assistant Secretary of State during the George H. W. Bush presidential administration.