chief of staff reagan

James Baker III – Did I Make Them Proud?

by Bernie Swain

James Baker III is an American statesman and attorney. He served as White House Chief of Staff and the United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, and as U.S. Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush. He is the best of what we want in a public statesman. He is the man who made Washington work. He is what Donald Trump can use now.


I’m a product of Texas. My family roots run deep in the state – and this legacy has guided, nurtured, and inspired me all my life.

The Captain
My great grandfather, James Baker, became a confederate states judge; after the Civil War he was booted off the bench and moved to Houston where he became a partner in small law firm. In the family, we call him Judge Baker.

Judge Baker had a son, my grandfather, also named James Baker, who also became a lawyer. He built up the firm and became one of the most prominent lawyers in Houston. We call him Captain Baker.

My grandfather’s title of Captain Baker was bestowed upon him by a local social organization, the Houston Light Guards. I always thought it was ironic because my father, his son, went to France in World War I, fought in the trenches, and rose to the rank of captain. No one ever called Dad captain. Similarly, I was a captain in the United States Marine Corps, and no one ever called me captain.

Tall and imposing, with a steely gaze, Captain Baker was a man you wouldn’t want to cross. But he had a soft spot for his family, and every Sunday we would gather at his house for dinner.

I was eleven years old when Captain Baker died. His intelligence, spine and civic commitment have had a lasting influence on me. And when my kids were young, I loved to play hide-and-seek with them.

James Baker. Jr.
The next James Baker in the line was my father, who also became a prominent Houston lawyer. Dad was handsome and muscular, with erect posture, weak eyes, and strong ideas about childrearing – and just about everything else.

He was a man of enormous integrity and in possession of a clear moral compass. In discussing his law work, he always stressed the need for honesty, fairness, and honor. He set an example that I wanted to emulate.

Growing Into Adulthood
After graduating Princeton in 1952, I joined the Marine Corps. Mary and I were married the following year and had the first of our four sons a year later. The two years I spent in the Marines were formative for me, teaching me the value of service to my country and reinforcing the ethos of discipline, hard work, and honor I’d learned from my father.

After the Marines, it was time to do my part to continue the Baker legacy and go to law school. Harvard was my first choice, but Dad insisted I go to the University of Texas Law School, his alma mater. He thought it was important for me to develop relationships in Texas, and he was right.

Loss of a Wife and Mother
Mary and I had four sons, and then in 1970, when she was only 38, she died of breast cancer. The boys were 15, 13, 9 and 8 at the time. It was, needless to say, a traumatic period for all of us, and the years that followed were a delicate balancing act for me.

My mom helped me raise my boys during that difficult time, and was the emotional center of gravity for the family. Of course, I’d inherited a lot of Dad’s child-rearing sensibilities and because of them, I was tough on my boys.

A Devout Woman
When my mother turned eighty-eight, I gave a dinner party in her honor. I toasted her and said, “Mom, happy birthday, you’re going to live to be 100.” She answered, “Oh, I don’t want to live that long, Jimmy.” When she turned ninety-six I gave a lunch in her honor. I toasted her and said, “Mom, I told you that you were going to live to be 100.” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Jimmy, don’t put a limit on it.”

Mom died at ninety-seven. She was a devout churchgoer, and she passed that faith on to me. I have a strong belief in a supreme being and in the power of prayer. I was brought up to understand that I had a Texas-sized legacy to live up to.

My great grandfather, grandfather, and father were all larger-than-life. They cherished and maintained high standards and a deep sense of civic and social responsibility.

I can only hope I have made them proud.


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