When protesting students were massacred in Tiananmen Square, mere months after George H. W. Bush became president, he and Secretary of State James Baker crafted the U.S. response to the Chinese crackdown. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, it was Baker and Bush who decided America should go to war to defend an ally. But these two Texans were more than a pair of leaders, directing American foreign policy in tumultuous times. They were also close friends for sixty years.
Charles Denyer has written a new book about the personal and political relationship of Bush and Baker. “Texas Titans: George H.W. Bush and James A. Baker, III: A Friendship Forged in Power” chronicles the friendship, which lasted until Bush’s death in 2018.
Denyer told Texas Standard that Bush and Baker met on the tennis courts at the Houston Country Club. They were paired by the club as doubles partners, later winning back-to-back championships.
Bush had come to Texas to pursue a career in the oil business. Later, he would enter politics. Baker was a “as blue blood as any Texan you could find.” Generations of family members have been partners in Houston’s Baker Botts law firm.
After Baker’s first wife died of breast cancer, Bush invited Baker to join his 1970 Senate campaign.
“Baker said two things to him: ‘one, I’m a Democrat, and two, I don’t know anything about politics,'” Denyer said. “At that time, George Herbert Walker Bush said ‘I can change both of those.'”
Bush lost the Senate race, but quickly rose in Republican politics, with high-profile positions that included an ambassadorship to China, and director of the CIA. Baker worked behind the scenes as both a political operative and an official in Republican administrations.
“Where they really made national headlines is when Baker ran Bush’s 1980 presidential primary campaign against Ronald Reagan,” Denyer said. “They upended Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses. That was really an upset. But ultimately, Reagan grabbed the nomination.”
But in defeat, Baker gave Bush advice that made the rest of Bush’s career possible. He advised Bush to withdraw from the race, or risk not being offered an administration post by Reagan.
“Bush did not want to hear that,” Denyer said. “…When that phone call happened at 11:30 at night at the 1980 Republican convention, and Reagan ultimately got on the telephone and asked George Bush to join him on the ticket as vice president, that really began the Bush dynasty.”
Denyer said the longevity of the Bush-Baker friendship before politics, and their family and personal connections in Houston, made their political working relationship possible.
“Bush had a comfort level with Baker,” he said. “That comfort level turned into trust.”
When he became president, Bush appointed Baker as his secretary of state. Though Baker’s experience in government had been in domestic roles, including secretary of the treasury and White House chief of staff, Denyer said Baker felt ready for the diplomatic job. He had even forged a kind of diplomacy in the previous administration.
As chief of staff to Reagan, Baker also helped Bush “stay in the loop” with the president. Baker made sure Reagan and Bush spoke often, and had lunch together regularly.
During Bush’s term, Baker’s presence was crucial to maintaining a cohesive foreign policy, Denyer said.
“I’ve rarely seen an individual in the political spectrum who could adapt, and adapt so well, to any type of role,” Denyer said of Baker.
Denyer says Baker found his friend’s passing difficult, and he still misses Bush, who died on November 30, 2018. He said Bush used to tease Baker about their positions in government.
“They would have such spirited conversations,” Denyer said. “And sometimes President Bush would say ‘Jim, if you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?'”