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tv   National Book Festival - Author Discussion on the Lives of James Baker and...  CSPAN  November 5, 2020 9:24am-10:08am EST

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♪ >> hi, there, i'm judy woodruff and i'm thrilled to be joining these three amazing authors today. you see them on the screen, they are george packer whose latest book "our man, richard holebooke and the end of the century", and peter baker, this fall "the man who ran washington the life and times of james a baker iii", two good books about two complicated and fascinating men. they were born a decade apart. baker in houston in 1930,
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holebooke in manhattan in 1941. baker a republican trained as a lawyer. holebooke, a democrat, foreign service officer. student of foreign policy. their lives took very different trajectories, but they both ended up in washington where they became major power players. peter, picking up on that, this was 0 m a man with great ambiti and that was even before he came to washington. >> it was. he was part of a houston aristocracy. his family basically built modern houston. he was expected of great things. he had a father who impressed on him the legacy. one thing they were not meant to do was politics. he was told we don't do politics and that's at the time he finally breaks away from his father's, you know, domination over his life and his world basically changed at age 40
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when he suffers this great family tragedy. his first wife dies of cancer and his friends from the houston country club tennis courts help pick him up. a man named george h.w. bush and set them off on a different odyssey that really put them in the center of world events. >> george, i'm going back and forth. the stories are so rich that we could go in so many directions, but i want to try to weave these stories together. george packer, richard holebooke, i use the word complicated, that doesn't begin to do justice to him. but why did you want to write about him and talk about his and talk about the first quarter of the book is about vietnam. >> so he died in december 2010. he was actually stricken in hillary clinton's office. the secretary of state's office
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which was a fitting finale and high drama characteristic of him. a few weeks later, his widow offered me his personal papers and i knew holbrooke a bit, not very well. and i thought i have a chance to explore a flamboyant, mesmerizing, maddening character whose career covered a half century from kennedy to obama, from vietnam to afghanistan through an intimate look at his diaries and letters and other papers. so, i said yes without really quite knowing why i'd said yes. holbrooke, as soon as i began to read those letters and some of them, as you say, judy, he began his career in vietnam, the mekong delta where the war was at its hottest in 1963. as soon as i read the letters through his first wife i knew i made a good choice. he was such a good writer, so
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intelligent, observant and funny, arrogant, a guy who could fill a book or maybe more. his ammunition was kind of a demonic engine there from the very start and got him into very high places and led to some triumphs and also in the end, i think, cost him a great deal. friendships and relationships and maybe his own heart's desire to rise, and maybe people felt he was too abrasi abrasive. >> demonic engine, what a term. sus susan glasser, talk about jim bakker and ran against ronald reagan with george bush, and
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yet, ronald reagan chose him as chief of staff and was seen the most at this job, how did he do it? >> he didn't necessarily have a background that would suggest he was going to be successful. he had been a lawyer up until a age-- and running gerald ford's campaign in 1976 coming in from nowhere in the wreckage after watergate. there were no republicans left of his generation at that point because you know, the previous group had been, you know, convicted, sent off to jail in the nixon, and also opened up a world for people like jim bakker, dick cheney, brent scowcroft and people who came to the fore. in his case, it's an example of a president, that is ronald reagan, what made sense for him. he was ooh an outsider coming into washington and he wanted things done.
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he didn't pick ed meese, the organizational skills to run a white house and didn't understand washington. jim bakker. jim he was his chief of staff and ended up being a smart choice on his part what was it that made him successful. he ended up treasury secretary and pulled off a bipartisan tax plan which we haven't seen anything really the likes of it since, back during the reagan years. but what was it about him that, you know, pulled it altogether? >> well, jouddy, jim baker, he
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would say my family, poor performance, but we all know washington is a city full of ambitious lawyers who do their homework and stay up late and certainly it's true that jame baker was asiduous to the point of obsessive when it came to getting the job done and famous for staying in the white house at night, in the reagan white house until he returned every phone call from every member of congress, often after he knew they'd gone home, by the way. this is a pre-e-mail, pre-internet era. there are certainly people well-prepared, that's one aspect of it. peter and i found on working on the book, in the end, for jim baker, success was really the only option. he's obsessed with winning and i think the hyper competitiveness is part of what
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he had in common with george h.w. bush, i think that's how they bonded on the tennis courts and there are varying stories how they teamed up as a doubles team. one simple answer i was looking at a picture the other day, jim baker pointing to the wall before george h.w. bush showed up in houston, guess who is in the singles champion, it was james baker iii and george h.w. bush wanted to be teamed up with a winner. there's no question about that. jame baker's father exerted this, and his family in general, this overweaning power over his early years and shaped him as a person. his dad literally beat this kind of competitiveness into him and they joked and called him the warden. and jim baker would play a match and his father was an
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obsessive tennis player. and when he was done with his match, his father would keep him on the court and make him keep practicing. baker and holbrooke, both men are ambition, both had insecurity and obsession how they were perceived by others, jim baker i think had self-discipline. and holbrooke, a falling character who emerges in george's wonderful and powerful book. you know, baker the self president clinton that the self-discipline and politics, never while his dad was alive, only after his father passed from the scene, his ammunition took him to washington. >> george, pick up on that, there's so much to say as we talk about richard holbrooke. his area was foreign policies, understanding the world.
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and people talk about what a brilliant-- was he another version of a henry kissinger. how did you see him in his take on the world, as a diplomate and how did he combine that with getting things done in washington? washington? >> so, a few things. first of all, there's some overlapping themes here between peter and susan's book and mine. one is ambition and one is tennis. holbrooke played a ton of tennis and i have this feeling that he rose up through the hierarchy in saigon and then in washington by whipping people on the tennis court or by being at least so competitive they had to respect him. first there was tony lake, anthony lake, his close friend and peer in the foreign service in saigon and they remained friends for 10 years and then their friendship mysteriously disintegrated with great
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consequences for them and for u.s. foreign policy, i think later when they were working together in bosnia under bill clinton. and then he played against west morland and eventually got to bobby kennedy in washington. and that's he holbrooke maneuvered to get to the best dinner tables in georgetown, and he revered this post-war generation of american statesmen from able herryman to george chrennen, clark clifford, george marshall, he thought of them as the model for him. he wanted to be just like them. the problem was he was a very different man. was not born to the aristocracy. he was jewish and never talked about it and had an outsiders rawness and uncouthness that
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got in the way of pushing ahead. the establishment was falling apart during holbrooke's career in the wake of vietnam. there was no longer that group of wise men who simply could be called upon by presidents to give advice. so holbrooke was forever trying to get to the top of a mountain. he loved mountain climbing stories and always just falling short of the summit. i had this line about he got to the highest base camp imaginable, but he met every assault on the summit failed. and i think it's partly because history changed. he was not henry kissinger to answer that question, judy, he didn't have had a geostrategic mind. he was more of an operative. he was a guy that went in and got things done, especially in foreign countries, in bosnia, for example. and times change and holbrooke was not cut out to smoothly ride his way to the top. he want self-disciplined like baker as susan said. he was undisciplined.
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he was transparent. his appetites and insecurities were all on the surface. he thought he was playing people when in fact, they saw right through him and in the end, the relationship that failed him was the one with barack obama who he desperately want today work closely with him, obama never trusted and never liked him. and in the end holbrooke died to some degree of a broken heart with a sense of failure at the end of his life. >> i'd just add quickly on the parallels between these two men who are vastly different in a lot of ways, and yet, ambition being one of the similarities. what made them successful, they were both relentless and instinctive. >> i've been looking to explore. i've been looking where maybe their lives intersected that they obviously know of each other, maybe knew each other better, if you could comment on that. i was looking at the period of
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the balkans. baker was able there in the administration of the administration in the end of the coal war. the balkans, i remember he said we don't have a dog in that fight and later that became the place of richard holbrooke's greatest triumph. it's a place, but it may be a way, george, to look at-- what was it about the balkans that lent itself to richard holbrooke's strengths, weaknesses? >> i think that line we don't have a dog in that fight was crucial because it said something about james baker's world view and his view of american foreign policy and where we had interest. he looked at the balkans and saw a hopeless, ancient slavic struggle that we could never understand and had no business getting involved in. he made very cursory effort to try to negotiate with milosevic and other balkan leaders at the
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beginning of the bar. he botched it. the war happened anyway. bill clinton inherited it at a terrible stage in bosnia. it's not baker's finalest hour and it shows something about the limits of his cold-eyed realism. i think the difference is holbrooke had a passionate sense that america had to be involved in the bosnias of the world. that if we let that country bleed, it would eventually become our problem. it would possibly rupture the transatlantic alliance. it was not of no consequence. we actually did have a dog in that fight and once holbrooke committed himself to that and he did it in, you know, in a way that showed he really did care about other countries and people in places whose names we can't pronounce, who are suffering in civil war and as refugees, and in floods and famine. this was something that characterized him throughout his career. he had a passionate
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humanitarian streak. and that was activated by the suffering in the balkans, as was his, you know, very, you know, post war, herryman, atchison, kennon sense that america have to lead. he was not going to stop until he had a deal and relentlessness is exactly what bosnia brought out in him. the same qualities did not work in other places, but in bosnia all of holbrooke's strengths came together and he achieved his claim to history, which is-- >> and susan, listening to you, i mean, i'm thinking about how baker looked back on the balkans at the end of your book, and of course the first iraq war in 1990, the first gulf war where in writing the book he wanted to take out references to-- a line maybe we should have
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stayed longer we could have done something about saddam hussein. he didn't want that in there, clearly he felt maybe mistakes were made? >> well, look, i think jim baker was a pragmatist and a realist and he came by that through his own experience. he was not a tilter at wind mills. he was not all about imposing a freedom agenda or a democracy agenda on the world. baker was essentially very calculating about where he saw a deal was possible, then he was going to jump on it. where he didn't see one, he was going to be pretty disciplined. for example, at the beginning of the bush presidency when he became secretary of state, he wasn't interested at all in the middle east. his aides couldn't get him to pay attention to it because there was no deal there and he had to focus on priorities and part of why some of the career diplomates were suspicious of him. he with as going to have his own very political list of what he thought he could accomplish
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and he wasn't going to focus on the rest. so he was looking for the deal and i think that that is the key to understanding his foreign policy world view. more than even a kind of, either centrism or the idea that he was a rigid kind of isolationist. he wasn't. he was very much willing to assert american power in the world, but nobody was quite sure what the new power would be as the soviet union -- you know, the world was falling apart in 1989 to 1991. >> and george, talk a little about holbrooke's view of all of that and how he maneuvered and i mean, you talked about the balkans, but how did he maneuver in the aftermath, in this post cold war era? >> i think holbrooke would not have been masterful as baker was at the moment of the fall of the berlin wall and the
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dissolution of the soviet union, holbrooke in a weird way, never showed much interest in the greatest foreign policy issue of his life, which was the cold war. i think he found the soviet union maybe just too abstract, too static, not enough was happening, nuclear arms talks was something that holbrooke would never have gotten interested in. his intensity and attention were always directed toward particular countries where there was conflict, and where there was suffering. vietnam, bosnia, afghanistan. once the cold war ended, i think holbrooke saw the opportunity for democrats to re-enter the governor policy arena. he had been scarred by vietnam as was every democrat of his generation, both by having been involved in the war and by being tarred as doves for
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thinking that we needed to get out, which was the position he ended up in. so he was always looking over his right shoulder, worried about an attack from the hawks. once the cold war ended, in a sense that pressure was off and i think he had an outsize idea of what america could do as the sole super power. he wanted to be involved, not just in bosnia, but in kosovo, in cypress, in east timor in congo, not with military power, but with as an all-purpose negotiator. the horn of africa. they were disintegrated and finding them all irresistible. so, in a way, baker is more, i think, a kissinger figure who had sort of a large view of what was possible, what was not and of foreign policy as
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geopolitic geopolitics and holbrooke would go in and solve a particular problem. i think in the post-cold war era i think he was at his best and obsessive and got himself into troubles that he he had a hard time getting out of. >> peter, i'd like you to pick up on that. there was one line i wrote down about baker in the end when you were writing how much he wanted to be seen as a diplomate, again, working on the book, but i'm quoting, he was, after all, a fixer, no matter how much he tried to break out of this straight jacket, but a fixer who shaped world events. i mean, you know, george is saying james baker, you know, was in some respects more like henry kissinger, but there was a difference. >> well, there's a difference, that's right. i think that baker is like kissinger in the sense that they took on the big things. baker was unsentimental.
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he wasn't moved by pictures of suffering. he never would have thought at that east timor was worthist time. he was calculating in that sense, but he was not like kissinger, he didn't have a great world strategy, a geopolitical view of things. he would not have gotten into a discussion about the treaty of west sevalia. he knew how to get operations through, a campaign leader who could negotiate debates with the other team and the great downfall of his life is when he had been secretary of state for three and a half years, he had negotiated the madrid peace talks and brought the coalition together for the gulf war and managed the unification of germany and then his friend, george bush, calls him back to the white house, he's about to lose reelection and needs baker to come back and resume the
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ro fixer. and he couldn't believe he was worrying about bunting and balloons instead of the great issues of the day. and once he was back at the white house with the losing campaign, and his own staff. why aren't you doing anything. and they called his wife, you've got to get on his case and even barbara bush wasn't convinced that was all in for her husband and that he was trying to avoid the coming blame and cause add rift between baker and the bush family that took years to resolve. it's a thing that he want today transcend and in end couldn't escape. >> it felt like we were waiting for months for baker to get into the campaign and the problems they were having. george, we've talked about the ambition of these two men, in holbrooke's case, larger than life. pluses larger than life.
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flaws. what was it about him that in the end, do you think, kept him from realizing. i mean, he really wanted to be secretary of state. you mentioned, you know, what happened between him and barack obama. what was it about him? >> well, in 1996 he had just achieved his greatest triumph, which was the peace talks and bill clinton was reelected and decided to would replace warren christopher as secretary of state and came down to holbrooke and madeleine albright. and clinton was leaning to holbrooke, he's got a great mind, and relentless. hillary clinton wanted her husband to pick the first female secretary of state which weighed decisively. in the end, clinton said to al gore, i don't think he
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holbrooke has the after awareness of-- aftersy wearness, holbrooke understood the person across the table whether it was milosevic or bill clinton. he didn't know himself well. he couldn't see himself. he couldn't laugh at himself. couldn't see himself as others were seeing him. there was a life long blindness to his own flaws and his own character that i think was a fatal flaw, and it meant he could negotiate, but when there was an obstacle that lay within himself, he didn't know how to get around it and that was what undid his relationship with barack obama. holbrooke was driving obama crazy with his lecturing and flattering and talking about vietnam, and like this ancient mariner coming to grab the young president by the lapels and say, you must listen to me, i've been there, i know.
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and obama couldn't stand it and holbrooke did not know why none of his charms and his talents were working with this sterling young president who he desperately want today-- wanted to impress and that's why he didn't get the job of his heart secretary of state. and i want to ask susan and peter one question if i can. how do you think, so holbrooke's boss warren christopher became the counterpart to james baker in bush v gore and was beaten. and i've always felt that showed james baker as a kind of blue-eyed killer and no one could beat him when it came to that. how do you think that holbrooke would have done going against jame baker on the florida recount. he's not a political operative, not a campaign manager, but not a lawyer. but a brilliant negotiator.
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how do you think that holbrooke would have done against james baker. >> that's an awesome question. back to that 2000 recount, it was many democrats who said to me that we knew that al gore was toast as soon as we heard that jim baker had been involved. i think that people were well aware even before the time before the recounts between the two men, the differences. one of christopher's great mistakes, actually was sitting down, and we tell the story in the book, the two of them sitting down for the first meeting, this dramatic moment. election is undecided, what's going to happen in florida, christopher blocked off a whole amount of time and sit there and thinks they're going to roll up their pinstriped suit shirt sleeves and get down to business and negotiating. jim baker wasn't there to negotiate, he was there to win. and i think that fundamentally, i think is where his experience as a corporate lawyer for decades came into it. i think there would have been
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an asymmetry between holbrooke and baker that did come from his understanding of what a high stakes legal venture this was, and he understood he wanted to get out of the florida courts, and he had a very, again, calculated and disciplined sense of what it took. and he wasn't going to jaw-bone. he had no interest in fact in sitting there and figuring out what was in the minds of al gore or warren christopher. so that might have made it hard for holbrooke to negotiate in this particular situation. and you also have to come back to do you have the respect to command your own team? and i think that was one of baker's hidden assets always in dealing with bush, certainly those two peter and i have been having a debate about this, were they the closest secretary ever state and president ever? or were they the closest and friendliest secretary of states and president since madison and
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jefferson? he thinks ever. i'm not so sure because i'm not an expert on madison and jefferson. >> this is what goes on at your dinner table, huh? [laughter] >> i know that jim baker would have appreciated richard holbrooke as a worthy adversary and debate partner he recognized his excellence. and at sexist time, he liked to play tennis against a good player and he would have known holbrooke as a good player. >> it's a great thought experiment what would have been baker versus holbrooke. peter, pick up on george's-- i mean, let me ask you, he talked about in the end richard holbrooke really didn't know himself. does jim baker know himself? >> that's a great question. you know, he is not a reflective person. he's not an introspective guy. i loved doing this book, we
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loved doing this book because he was open with us. we have a live subject and george didn't, right? so we got the chance to ask him all of these questions and the truth is he's not somebody who is going to open up his psychological profile to you and really, you know, expose himself in that way. he is super disciplined even to this day, but he did give us access to his papers and his parents aren't like holbrooke's letters from vietnam, they weren't expressive in that way, but there were clues here and there. one i thought was very human was this, you know, tragedy we mentioned earlier where his first wife died of cancer and he gave us a letter that has never been published before. >> i saw that, it was stunning. >> where he writes, yes, he writes with friend george bush, his friend george bush is going to move from the house for run to senate and trying to get baker to run for his house seat and baker writes him a letter explaining why he's not going to make the campaign. he said to his friend george that the reason why is because his wife is dying, and even she
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doesn't know it. the doctors haven't told her. this is back in the era where that was considered to be okay, the husband was told and the wife wasn't. and he said to his friend-- >> even at the time it wasn't-- >> and, but he says to his friend, i can't do it because my wife is dying, i haven't told anybody, i haven't told her, i haven't told my kid, haven't told my mother. one person he tells is george bush, that's a friendship, in fact, powerful and transformative and that's human. and to have him give us that letter, i think, showed us insight in a way that we hadn't and also, by the way, gave us another letter, his wife, dying wife, mary stewart writes him a letter because in fact she does know she's dying and she hides it in the house to be given to him after had he dies and when we hand him this letter 50 years later, he's crying. it's a human story, he's not psychologically open the way
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that holbrooke kind of was. and i think that george's character study of holbrooke is so powerful, rich three dimensional. baker is not that kind of person, but he's a human person and that's what made this book really-- >> and my book, to be able to do my book depended on holbrooke not being alive. you had the advantage to be able to talk to james baker, and not having richard holbrooke not looking over my shoulder. >> yeah. >> in fact, he wouldn't have given me his papers at all and all the people that talked to me didn't have to worry about what he would say once he found out what they had said to me. so for me, this had to be a story of a man who had come and gone and that was how i managed, that's how i was able to write as honestly as i was. >> and that's a real-- that's an important distinction, both holbrooke and baker, getting back to the discussion, were extremely astute in different ways at
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managing their images. both of their critics would say that that was one of their great skills was actually talking to reporters and people like us, and you know, that they had an extreme sensitivity toward their own image. judy, you point you had out, one of the great sources for us in writing this book actually was looking at what baker wanted to be deleted from his memoirs and state department, and public life. it's often the stage managed parts of the image and parts they don't want to tell you that are as revealing as anything else. you know, but i would say that jim baker, he's not a dirist, he's not keeping his personal historian around to document things. we did have the benefit of talking to a subject late in life. just turned 90 this year. written two memoirs of his own and i found him to be surprisingly candid with us, especially about his family. you know, you get a stern lev
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level-- certain level of awareness by the time you're 90 and you called your father the warden and your father micromanaged you and even after you were a marine veteran and graduated college, you agreed not only to go to the law school that he he insisted and sign up for the fraternity with undergraduates because that's where their father thought the family should be in. and getting personal in a way that i think helped us understand that it's not just a resume' that you're talking to and that, you know, you have to look at those personal qualities to understand what made him able to tackle a series of washington's hardest jobs in a way that actually nobody else has done in such a compressed period of time in the modern era. >> i want to finally ask you all about, you know, today's washington and how -- i mean,
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i'm interested, george, how do you think that holbrooke would be able to function in a washington of today, a party out of power, but what would it be like, the city has changed. and peter, you know, jim baker, what does he think of what's going on now? and we know that this interview will be released in september, so time will pass from the, you know, another month or so. ... never stop comparing himself to. today, first of all, trump's washington would be just a mind-boggling alien and
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appalling place for richard holbrooke here everything that trump does in foreign policy is the opposite of what richard holbrooke would you come everything. i can't think of a single move trump has made that holbrooke would've agreed with. and vice versa. he would've been writing columns for the "washington post." he would've been denouncing the isolationism, america first picky would've been talking about the importance of transatlantic alliance and nato and our allies in asia. during the pandemic i think it would been a brilliant organizer of other countries to find a cooperative response. that was the kind of thing he excelled at. he put hiv/aids as an issue before the u.n. security council so we understood that disease could be a threat to our national security. but i think in the way he would have been, out to sea. he would not know how to function.
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social media would have brought out all his worst qualities and none of his best. the schmoozing and seducing, mental seducing i should say of reporters that he excelled at isn't something -- so easily done and matter so much anymore. it would've been alienable for him and he would've felt as if the golden age was gone. >> peter, james baker is a republican. he's watching closely what's going on. >> i think he finds the trump world maddening. it is antithesis of everything that he believed about governance and politics. trump is carried and basically both the architecture of world affairs and republican party that baker spent a lot of time building up. i found in doing the research one night i was coming the impeachment trial of president
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trump as i was going through some baker files one night and i found this memo i had not noticed before and it was a memo baker had written because baker kept calm his integrity at least the appearance of ethical behavior meant so much to them he kept a file of all the instances where people asked him to do things he thought were crossing the lines so you would keep a record showing he would not do that. one of the memos was a memo about republican guardsman coming to george bush at the end of 1992 campaign saying you're losing, you need ask britain and russia for help understanding about bill clinton's overseas activities when he was young. baker in bush said no, that crosses a line. we do not ask foreign powers for help in our domestic elections. there that memo was an a so struck by a because it's such a contrast what we are covering during today. >> look, i think the point surely will taken. jim baker was was in many waysd yet he could not disavow it.
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i said that within a few days before the 2016 election and he was a man stricken. he was absolutely in paint and tortured over what to do about donald trump. he told me donald trump doesn't do anything i i believe when it comes to foreign policy. he is saying crazing thinks. in fact, he told he thought donald trump was nuts and yet he couldn't bring himself to reject the party's nominee. jim baker came out of his time in washington convinced the only way to wield power is from the inside. he's just not a man who thinks there's any efficacy whatsoever in being an outside howling and complaining. that no one will take you seriously. this is a struggle of the republican party under trump. it's really been i think the window into the parties sold to watch jim baker wrestle with donald trump who on a personal level -- parties sold -- exact opposite of in an baker has never brought himself to
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publicly denounce trump and to disavow the turn in the republican party he spend his whole life working in a different direction. >> fascinating, just it's all fascinating and endlessly fascinating these two men who clearly helped shape washington with such enduring legacies. the books could not be more important right now and i want to again thank these amazing authors, george packer, author of our men, , richard holbrooket the end of the american century. and susan glasser and peter baker, a man who ran washington, the life and times of james baker. thank you all three for just an extraordinary conversation. >> thanks to you, judy. >> thanks so much, judy. ♪ ♪
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