Howard H. Baker Jr., former U.S. Senator, Tennessee

113th Landon Lecture
March 9, 1999

Contemporary American Politics

First, I am pleased to be here to deliver the Landon lecture. I might begin by complimenting K-State on their home page on the Internet. In trying to find a copy of my 1979 remarks, I found that my exquisite filing systems had in some way managed to make them disappear. But, then I found that I could go to the K-state home page and not only find my remarks delivered with oratorical flourishes, but I found Nancy's remarks in 1987 and Governor Alf Landon's inaugural lecture in 1966. That is a rare resource and extraordinary achievement by K-State and one of inestimable value for the future.

I should tell you that I am a very lucky man. I have been fortunate all my life. I was born to a loving family. By the accident of the calendar, I served in the Navy in World War II, when most of the fighting was over, and I was delivered back to civilian life alive and well. I was lucky to gain admission to law school at the University of Tennessee, to graduate, and to commence practicing law with my father, who had begun to practice law with his father. I enjoyed practicing law. I was elected to the United States Senate in 1966. I was fortunate to serve there for 18 years, eight of those years as either the Minority Leader or the Majority Leader, and then to return to private life once more at a time of my choosing and under my own power. A short time after that I was asked by President Reagan to become his Chief of Staff and I did so in 1987 and 1988. I count that experience as an extraordinarily fortunate time in my life. Ronald Reagan and I were both elected to a state-wide office in the same year and I thought I knew him well, but it was not until I served with him at the White House that I came to understand the true dimensions of this great man. Following that, I returned once more to private life to my profession, but I have never been luckier or more fortunate than when I married Nancy.

A lot has changed since Alf Landon's speech in 1966. He described the Cold War as "peace based on fear." Since then we have seen the end of the Cold War, an impeachment trial of a sitting President of the United States for only the second time in the history of our Republic, we have witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, the emerging unification of Europe and a time of economic turmoil around the world. When Senator Nancy Kassebaum spoke of the "intersection of hope and doubt in out country" she was accurately portraying the complex opportunities and dangers that confronted us, and they still do.

Today, I would like to talk about two things:

First, the institutional structures and framework of our Government. I think it is unlikely that our talented young founding fathers at the ending part of the 18th century could have understood how relevant the structures of government they gave us would be to the 20th and 21st centuries. It is truly a remarkable system. There has probably never been a more sensitive and resonant system of government than that which we enjoy. It has withstood challenges to our independence, the internal strive of civil war, the industrial revolution, two world wars and the Cold War. For more than two centuries, the citizens of the United States have experienced sovereign authority, thus have instructed their government in remarkable and successful ways. Sometimes our decisions have produced conflicts, but all have lead to a stronger and better country. Sometimes we are embarrassed as in Teapot Dome and Watergate, but we have learned from each of them. We have certainly learned that our best efforts at self government are never perfect and almost always require significant change and mid-course correction.

Recently I testified before a Senate Committee on the renewal of the Independent Counsel Act and whether it should be re-authorized before it expires by its terms in June or permitted to expire. It is my vies, the Independent Counsel Act, which was adopted in the wake of Watergate, was well intentioned, artfully structured, and is now essentially unworkable. In the wake of Watergate we also adopted the War Powers Act, which calls into question the President's right as Commander in Chief to commit troops without Congressional approval and upsets the Constitutional balance of power; as well as the Ethics in Government Act, which has created distortions in personal relationships, bizarre interpretations and the Campaign Finance Reform Legislation, which simply hasn't worked out and which is riddled with loop holes and requires extensive overhaul. I hope we have learned that we cannot govern ourselves with laws that are simply well intended and cleverly titled. It is clear to me that we cannot rely solely on laws to govern our society.

And now as we are about to enter the regular Presidential/Congressional election cycle, indeed the campaign for the Presidency is already under way, and I hope we have learned that we must rely on the character of our leaders and on our ability to judge before electing them.

I would now like to give my description of a good President, based on my own experience at the White House and in Congress and, perhaps even more importantly, from the vantage point of a more detached point of view as a private citizen:

First, a candidate must be honest and genuine He must be what a country expects when they choose him and must not turn out to be something entirely different.

Secondly, if he is elected, he must know exactly who he is. He is President of the United States, he is head of state, he is the head of one of the three bodies of our government, he is the leader of the free world. He or she will not succeed if there is difficulty in comprehending and accepting the enormity of these responsibilities.

Third, the President must know what he or she believes. It is a little late to establish a political philosophy after you occupy the Oval Office. Most successful presidents, including Ronald Reagan, have always had a simple, but well defined set of core beliefs. In Reagan's case, he felt that the country was overtaxed and over regulated, that private initiative could create wealth at such a rate that it would eliminate at least the most dire consequences of poverty and suffering, and that America should remain strong militarily and resolute diplomatically that no one would ever dare to seriously challenge us. That's not a bad formula.

Fourth, a President must know where he wants to lead the country. Not even the most popular and talented Chief Executive is capable of leading the government and 240 million of us toward every objective that he might visualize. He must choose and choose well, but choose a few things that he wishes to accomplish.

And finally, a President must be aware that we live in a dangerous time, and that there is no clear cut formula for how he must lead. I think that it is perhaps not an overstatement to say the world today is a more dangerous place since the end of the Cold War. I have a great fear of "loose nukes" in the hands of uncertain leadership, not only in Russia but perhaps in half a dozen other countries. We do still live in a Nuclear Age and there is still cataclysmic danger.

And that is the second issue that I will discuss and especially my concern about the former Soviet Union. Today Russia is arguably more dangerous to the security of the United States than at any time in our mutual history. Security can be best defined through predictability. Think about personal safety. If you can safely predict where you can walk and when, taking into account the likely response of others around you to mug you or leave you alone, you will judge your personal safety and actions accordingly. Terrorism terrifies because it is unpredictable. Just when no one expects it, a bomb goes off in the World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City Courthouse is blown to bits.

So, too, with international relations.

Soviet-American relations in the periods after the 1917 Revolution and especially in the Cold War era were, if anything, predictable. The Russians and the Americans learned to live together in a time of mutual terror.

Surely the world is a better place for having vanquished an empire that repressed human rights and bullied small countries. But we miss the point if we do not understand that we have entered a mercurial era, a time when world economies and politics are nothing if not unstable. And instability, unpredictability, is the key ingredient of danger.

Today's Russia is headless. Boris Yeltsin could barely walk to and from his car at King Hussein's funeral. The entire economic system in Russia, once so ballyhooed by foreign investors at "the" emerging market, lies in ruins. Russia has defaulted on domestic and foreign debt.

But why do we care? Because a headless Russia, still the largest country on earth with almost as many nuclear weapons as the U.S., that is isolated and frightened, is not the Russia we want to have as our neighbor.

Soldiers have not been paid. Food is not shipped to remote, cold regions of the country. nuclear weapons experts and scientists go for months without pay. Nuclear weapons stockpiles are improperly guarded. No on e in the West knows for sure who really has control over nuclear codes, especially if the nation's president, who is supposed to make the final launch decision, is at best enfeebled.

Scientists and weapons merchants, determined to eat and secure their futures, sell their knowledge and wares to other countries.

Whether or not Russia remains a cohesive country, we know from physics and history that power abhors a vacuum. I see two "pessimistic" scenarios, not mutually exclusive:

  1. Russia continues to drift with no real leadership and no real hope of early access to international economic support.

  2. A strong man appears on the horizon determined to reunite a fractious nation. The result: a militarized, embarrassed, poor nationalistic Russia which has far less to lose by using force in its conflicts than did its superpower Soviet predecessor which sought to maintain the status quo. This unhappy scenario I call the Siberian Colonel, for indeed the authoritarian leader may be someone that the West has never heard of.

That's why in 1990 and 1991 I feel that we celebrated a bit too ostentatiously the end of the Cold War and our "victory." There are other prospects for Russia, some less menacing. But if people do not eat and do not feel allegiance to a state that does nothing for them, what have they to lose? Those are dangerous people whom we cannot easily control through normal politics and dialogue, especially when we do not even know whom to talk to, or who, if anyone, is ultimately in control.

For these reasons, I feel we must engage Russia fully and regularly, knowing that we bear certain responsibility for the economic destruction which put the country into its current shape. We shoveled money into the country thinking we could create a capitalist Western democracy. It did not.

Russia is dangerous not because of ideology, but because of lack of leadership and ballast. Our national job in the coming months and years will be to help bring stability to Russia and sooner than later bring Russia and the world together.

So, finally, we live in an uncertain world with the intersection of uncertain hopes and doubts. We are the beneficiaries of the greatest governing system ever devised by the mind of man. It is relevant to our time and to the future. It has capably produced great leadership for our country and for the rest of the world. WE are faced now with great political decisions at home and must deal with great political and military decisions in the rest of the world. As I said in my speech at this place in 1979, I think that it is a little short of disgraceful that such a small proportion of Americans participate in our electoral process, because it is only in that way that we are assured of choosing men and women of caliber to deal with these cataclysmic issues. I have confidence in the future, but it will require a diligent discharge of our responsibilities as conscientious citizens.

Sen. Howard Baker
Landon Lecture
March 9, 1999