'Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!'

ByABC News via via logo

Oct. 5, 2006 — -- Unlike many politicians, well-known Republican James Baker didn't always want to work in Washington.

He got roped in to his life's work at the age of 40, by a tennis partner who would one day become president: George W. Bush.

In his memoir, Baker recounts his key roles in the administrations of Presidents Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The title of his memoir came from advice his grandfather gave him long ago.

Of course, he went into politics anyway, and he now shares his experiences with readers.

"Number One, I Don't Know Anything About Politics"

The presidential election was the tightest in a century. As the results came in, it was apparent that a small number of votes for my candidate or his opponent would swing the contest one way or the other. When I finally went to bed at 3:00 a.m., I was certain I would never see another race for president decided by such a narrow margin. Boy, was I wrong.

The 1976 race between Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford was close. If there had been a shift of fewer than 5,600 votes in Ohio and 3,700 in Hawaii, Ford would have retained the presidency, winning the electoral vote while losing the popular election. But '76 now pales in comparison to the 2000 race between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush. That one was decided by 537 votes in Florida and a 7 -- 2 margin in the U.S. Supreme Court more than a month after the balloting. As most everyone knows, although Gore won the popular vote, Bush prevailed in the Electoral College.

In 1970, as a forty-year-old Houston corporate lawyer who had little interest and no experience in politics, I could never have imagined that I would be intimately involved in either of these presidential contests, much less both. Nor could I ever have dreamed that I would lead five successive presidential campaigns for three different candidates. At the beginning of 1975, I was still practicing law in my hometown. By that fall, I was in Washington, D.C., second in command at the Department of Commerce. And by the summer of '76, I was campaign chairman for the Ford-Dole ticket. Who'da thunk it?

Before losing narrowly to Carter, we had come back from a double-digit deficit after the conventions. Many observers believe that if Ford-Dole had been Ford-Reagan, we would have won. So why didn't Ford tap Reagan for the second spot and create a dream ticket?

The actor-turned-politician from California was the obvious choice. He had a huge core of supporters, and he was a great campaigner. Moreover, he had just missed getting the nomination himself at what turned out to be the last closely contested national convention in this nation's history.

President Ford was not happy that Governor Reagan had mounted such a strong challenge against a sitting president. But other nominees have chosen runner-ups after bitter contests, particularly if those runner-ups could improve the chances of victory in November. John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson that way. While the chemistry between Ford and Reagan was not good, that alone didn't impel Ford to bypass Reagan. Most accounts say there was another reason.

Early during President Reagan's first term, when I was his White House chief of staff, he and I discussed this. "You know, Mr. President," I said, as we sat together alone in the Oval Office one day, "if President Ford had asked you to run with him, he would have won, and you might never have been president."

"You're right," the president responded. "But I have to tell you, Jim, if he had asked, I'd have felt duty-bound to run."

"President Ford didn't ask you," I replied, "because we received word from your campaign that you would join him for a unity meeting only on the condition that he wouldn't offer you the vice presidency. And besides that, you very publicly shut down the movement by your supporters in Kansas City to draft you for the vice presidential nomination."

"Look," President Reagan said, "I really did not want to be vice president, and I said so at the time. But I don't have any recollection of telling anyone to pass a message to President Ford not to offer me the spot. If he had asked, I would have felt duty-bound to say yes."

I was shocked. How different history might have been. Given the intensity of their primary battle, Ford really didn't want Reagan as his running mate, but the president might have asked if he had thought Reagan would accept. And with a Ford-Reagan ticket in 1976, I think two presidential portraits might be missing from the White House walls today -- those of Jimmy Carter . . . and Ronald Reagan.

This conversation about the vice presidency occurred early in President Reagan's tenure and was revisited several times over the years. As anyone who knew him well would attest, Ronald Reagan was completely without guile. What you saw was what you got. I have no reason to believe he wasn't being totally up front with me.

Still, I must add here that a few years ago one of his close friends and advisers, former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, told me that he still believes candidate Reagan made it clear in 1976 that he didn't want to be offered the second spot. But if, as President Reagan told me, he didn't tell anyone to pass on that message to the Ford camp, this would suggest his staff did that on its own. Why? Perhaps they knew he didn't want to be vice president, but would have felt he could not turn down a direct offer from the president. Or perhaps they simply reasoned that if a Ford-Reagan ticket had won, their man would have been too old to run for president in 1980 or 1984. (He wasn't, of course, and ran successfully in both of those years, although without having first served as vice president.)

My roles as presidential campaign chairman and White House chief of staff would not have sat very well with another James Addison Baker, my grandfather. Nor would my view that all Americans should consider public service. A successful lawyer known as the "Captain," he admonished all who joined his firm to "work hard, study, and keep out of politics," which he viewed as a somewhat unseemly undertaking that really good lawyers left to others. He was an imposing figure who helped transform Houston from a regional cotton market and rail hub into a vibrant seaport and the capital of the U.S. oil industry. In the process, he turned a local law practice into a preeminent Texas firm that would later expand worldwide.

With due respect to the Captain, however, not keeping out of politics turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Although my unplanned entry into public life was occasioned in part by personal tragedy, I found I had a strong predilection and passion for what the former New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith called "the power game." Over the years, I witnessed the exercise of more power than I would have ever dreamed possible, but was often reminded (sometimes the hard way) to keep a sense of perspective about it all.

No one was better at keeping me humble than my mother, Bonner Means Baker. On my visits to Houston in the late 1980s and early nineties, she invariably asked: "Now, darling, tell me exactly, what is it you do?"

"Mom, I am secretary of state."

"Of the United States of America?"

"Yes, Mom."

"You don't mean it!"

Then she would add, "Well, you know, dear, if your father had lived, he would never have let you go to Washington."

My mother lived to the handsome age of ninety-six. She and my dad had tried to have children for thirteen years before I came along, so she doted on me and my younger sister, Bonner, when we finally arrived -- me on April 28, 1930, and Bonner some eighteen months later. I talked baby talk until I was three or four years old, and I called my mother "Mamish." She was a warm, spirited, and elegant woman, not indifferent to fashion. I am still not sure whether her affectionate cross-examination of me in her twilight years stemmed from a failing mind or her enduring sense of humor.

Mother was only fifteen when she and my father, James A. Baker, Jr., met at a high school dance in Houston. It was love at first sight, she always said. They were engaged for five and one-half years. My dad wanted to be in a position to support his bride and, eventually, a family, but after he finished Princeton in 1915 and got his law degree at the University of Texas in 1917, World War I intervened. They married on August 4, 1917, about ten months before he shipped out as a young army lieutenant for the trenches of France. I remember Mother telling me that in his absence she comforted herself every day by repeating a verse from the 91st Psalm: "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee."

Like my mother, Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to joke, but he also had an austere demeanor and was a strict disciplinarian. And like his father, he, too, had a saying: "Prior preparation prevents poor performance." He called this the "Five Ps." It's a simple aphorism, the sort of thing adults tell children, then forget. People are often surprised to hear a man my age recite it, and without embarrassment. But this was a gift from my father that has helped me in one way or another almost every day of my adult life.

Dad was an intercollegiate wrestling champion and fine pole-vaulter while at Princeton. No doubt his training as an athlete and his military service reinforced his views about the importance of discipline and preparation, about doing your best in the fleeting time you are given on this earth.

Dad's fifth-year Princeton reunion book features the photographs of many classmates who never returned from the bloody battlefields of Europe. He came back, however, as an infantry captain and a genuine war hero. He once ordered some in his company to clear out an enemy trench. When they balked, he went in by himself, armed only with his .45-caliber service revolver, and captured two German soldiers. I had that pistol for many years until it was stolen, and I still have his World War I helmet and uniform.

My sister and I always addressed Dad with respect, but behind his back, my friends and I called him "Warden." He expected good manners, hard work, and deference to adult authority, and he regarded corporal punishment as a useful way to help us see the benefits of satisfying those expectations. The culture of the 1930s supported this approach. In those days, children did what their parents asked them to. Sometimes he spanked me. Occasionally, he would throw cold water on me in bed if I didn't get up when I should.

I'll leave it to the child-rearing experts to debate the pros and cons of this sort of upbringing, now considered old-fashioned and too harsh. All I can say is that he was a terrific dad. We had a wonderful relationship, I loved him dearly, and he set me on the right path. Many of my contemporaries had their lives ruined because their parents gave them too much money and too little discipline. That was never a problem in the Baker household.

Dad also loved to hunt and fish. From the time I was six, he and I spent many hours together in duck blinds. They are superb classrooms for teaching other forms of discipline, including the patience necessary to know exactly the right time to pull the trigger. After his love and his emphasis on the Five Ps, sharing his passion for the outdoors was Dad's greatest gift to me.

As a young competitive tennis player, I didn't question my father's orders to stay on the court after matches and practice backhand after backhand. Nor did I question his decision to send me across the country to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to his alma mater, the Hill School. I didn't even protest when he told me to join his old undergraduate social fraternity at the University of Texas, Phi Delta Theta. Here I was in law school, twenty-four years old, just out of the Marine Corps, married with a child, and having to go through a Hell Week hazing in which college kids younger than I was poured raw eggs down my throat and made me sit bare-assed on a block of ice.

I didn't rebel. When I was growing up, our objective was to please our parents. Mother and Dad knew best, and we didn't argue with them. But we certainly didn't always do everything we were told. Like most teenagers, then and now, I broke curfew more than a few times.

One irony in my father's life is that he earned his military rank of captain in the most difficult way possible, but for my grandfather, "Captain" was an honorific title bestowed by a ceremonial Houston militia he joined in the late 1800s. After the Civil War, many prominent men in the South were forever known as "General Smith" and "Colonel Jones." My grandfather's militia was formed, I have heard, to give younger men a way to wear outlandish uniforms, join parades, conduct balls, and (not least) claim military rank of their own -- all without the grim necessity of being actual soldiers.

I remember the Captain as a heavyset man who always smelled of cigars. He sat on the boards of many major banks, utility companies, and railroads, and represented them as a lawyer. Well known in Texas, he rose to national prominence in 1900 when he became the central figure in one of the most sensational scandals of his era.

In a New York murder trial, he proved that a butler and an unscrupulous lawyer had poisoned William Marsh Rice, a wealthy Texas merchant, with mercury and chloroform, then claimed Rice's fortune under a forged will. My grandfather had been Mr. Rice's lawyer, and his efforts restored the victim's original will, which endowed William Marsh Rice Institute, a "university of the first class" that Rice had chartered in Houston in 1891. Rice Institute (now Rice University) opened in 1912, and my grandfather served as its first chairman of the board of trustees for fifty years.

The Captain was the second James A. Baker in our family. The first, his father, was born in 1816 near Florence, Alabama, to Elijah and Jane Baker. Family lore says they descended from Scottish immigrants. They were part of the great migration of early Americans out of the thirteen original states to the unsettled forests and plains out west. They were, it seems, a well-educated family. In Alabama, James apprenticed to a lawyer and appeared to have prospects for a good career. In April 1852, however, he abruptly left for Texas, apparently in grief over the sudden death of his bride of less than two years. During the Civil War, he served as a judge. Afterward, he joined a small Houston law firm -- the one that to this day bears his name, Baker Botts. He and his second wife, Rowena, are buried in Huntsville, Texas, not far from his friend General Sam Houston.

I will not pretend that I grew up under modest circumstances. My mother's father, J. C. Means, was in the timber, oil, and cotton business. He was not particularly successful, but the Bakers were reasonably well-to-do. Each generation had built on the success of the previous one. We lived in a nice two-story house near Rice University and belonged to two country clubs. The family owned a considerable amount of Houston real estate and made other good investments.

Still, I don't think my parents spoiled me. Dad was quite frugal. He understood that it was easier to spend a dollar than to make it. As a result, we didn't lead the stereotyped bigger-than-life Texas existence. No mansion. No big cars. And no big allowance for me. Dad invested most of his money. Yet he did spend, without hesitation, for his children's education or for things my mother wanted; material possessions for himself or his children were meaningless, something else I inherited from him. But I've become much better as the years have gone by and I have been able to accumulate some means of my own.

There were occasional extravagances in my childhood. Some were outlandish: when I was a young boy, my mother once had me dressed in a pink linen smock for a portrait by a member of the French Academy. Some were just plain fun: when the University of Texas played Texas A&M in football, the Captain often took us to the game in a private rail car arranged through one of his railroad clients.

There was one domain in which my father was willing to give me money. When I was a teenager, he said he would pay me $1,000 if I didn't smoke until I was twenty-one and another $1,000 if I didn't drink alcohol before that age. I didn't collect, though I managed to wait until I was eighteen for my first taste of hard liquor. I was not a habitual smoker until I went into the Marine Corps. At breaks in our training, the drill instructors would always say, "The smoking lamp is lit" -- meaning it was okay to smoke. Most everyone did, so I did, too.

It's somewhat remarkable that I didn't start drinking the moment my parents dropped me off at the Hill School. My first year there was tough. I entered as a junior and didn't know anybody. Most classmates had already been there for two years and had established friendships. I was a new boy. All my friends were back in Houston. I even had to wear a beanie, and every time I put it on, it reminded me that I was not a part of the old boys' club.

By senior year, I was much more at ease. I was elected to the student government and captained the tennis team. I also made friendships that continue to this day. My grades were good, but not outstanding. Still, I managed to get into the university I wanted and that my father had attended: Princeton. Two centuries after it was founded by colonial Presbyterian clerics, it was still the destination of choice for many young American men of Scottish heritage, particularly those from the South.

As I said, I didn't really drink until I was eighteen, but I quickly made up for lost time during my first year at Princeton. Liberated from the constraints of prep school, I went wild. I became a member of both Princeton's Right Wing Club -- so named because we spent much of our time using our right arms to hoist spirituous beverages -- and 21 Club, another social organization with a similar mission. I also used my right arm to play tennis as cocaptain of the freshman team, but the team was loaded with nationally ranked players who were better than I was. The next year I gave up tennis and switched to rugby, in part because the rugby team went to Bermuda for spring break, and the tennis team went only to North Carolina. It was in Bermuda in 1950 that I met the girl I was later to marry, Mary Stuart McHenry, who was there on spring break from Finch College in New York.

My freshman and sophomore year grades reflected my membership in the social clubs. I ignored the Five Ps to such an extent that it is a wonder I didn't get five Fs and flunk out. By junior year, fortunately, I had matured a bit. I studied more, finding the classics (my minor) and history (my major) especially interesting.

My senior thesis covered the conflict within Britain's Labour Party in the 1930s and forties between two powerful members of Parliament, Aneurin Bevan, whom I saw as a "true socialist," and Ernest Bevin, a "social democrat." There was no love lost between these two men. When a British cabinet member declared that Bevan was his own worst enemy, Bevin said, "Not while I'm around."

I argued that the clash between Bevan and Bevin was a clash between idealism and realism. Those who know me will not be surprised that I favored the approach of the realist, Bevin, who served as Clement Attlee's foreign secretary. "Bevin was not interested in theories, but in practicalities," I wrote. "He knew that when men were unemployed they wanted bread and work, not an oration on the coming revolution. . . Bevin believed in solving the problems of the present before tackling the problems of the future."

I had no interest or talent in science or math, but did have a fair grasp of history -- an indicator that I might have an aptitude for the law. More important, however, I'd been brought up with the idea that Baker Botts was everything. I'd sat in my father's office as he worked, and had worked at the firm myself as an office boy.* That was my legacy. That was the history of my family.

"Practicing law is a wonderful lifestyle," Dad told me. "Although you'll never make really big money doing it, it's very satisfying." Still, this career path was not ordained. More than once Dad told me the choice was mine. "I'd never insist you be a lawyer." I even flirted with going to medical school, but that was before I took a job at St. Joseph's Hospital one summer as a teenager. My assignment was to hold the tray while stabbing victims and overdosed drug users threw up. I also had the opportunity to watch a baby being born and observe a surgeon cutting into a patient's chest cavity. All that blood! I quickly realized I didn't have the stomach or the aptitude to become a doctor.

In any event, I didn't have to make a decision by graduation day in the late spring of 1952. My immediate future was Basic School -- the U.S. Marine Corps' officer training program -- not law school. The government had started drafting young men out of college when the Korean War broke out in 1950. I wanted to serve, but I wanted to finish school first. It was too late to join an ROTC program at Princeton, and my tendency to motion sickness made it prudent not to consider the Air Force or the Navy.

The CIA seemed a possibility until I had an on-campus interview. "Would you have any problem jumping out of an airplane with a parachute behind enemy lines?" I was asked.

"You bet I would." End of interview.

Then I learned of the Marine Corps platoon leaders program. The deal: go to boot camp for six weeks each summer for two summers, and we'll give you a commission when you graduate. After that you'll have an obligation to serve on active duty for two years. I signed on.

In Basic School at Quantico, I was one of about five hundred second lieutenants. Our commanding officer told us that if we worked hard, we'd get our choice of duty station and military occupational specialty (MOS). I graduated at the top of the reserves in our class -- behind a few regular Marine enlisted men picked to become officers. When it came time to hand out MOSs, the commanding officer told me, "We're going to put you where we put our best -- platoon leader, MOS 0302 -- infantry officer."

"Major," I replied, "one reason I worked so hard is because I have a friend who graduated a year ago, and he talked to me about being a naval gunfire spotter, MOS 0840. That's what I really want to do." Spotters went in with the first wave of an amphibious invasion. They had a couple of jeeps, a few men, and some radio equipment, and their job was to deploy forward and direct the fire of naval ships supporting the operation. This was hazardous duty, as was leading a platoon, but I preferred it. I didn't want to be responsible for the lives of forty-four other people.

Although the major wasn't pleased by my request, he honored it. I thought I'd be going to Korea, and fifty-nine of the sixty officers in our class who received artillery MOSs went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for two weeks and then on to Korea. The sixtieth -- me -- ended up with the battalion of Marines the United States had kept deployed in the Mediterranean since the end of World War II. I was on a troop transport ship, the USS Monrovia, where the biggest danger was falling overboard as I perpetually heaved over the rail.

I was in the Mediterranean for six months. When I returned in November 1953, Mary Stuart and I were married in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. After my discharge from active duty in 1954, we moved to a small apartment in Austin, Texas, where I entered law school lon the GI Bill. I thought about applying to Harvard, but my father argued that the University of Texaas was the best place to learn Texas law and establish connections with others who would be practicing in Texas. Again, I didn't question his counsel, which turned out to have been excellent.

During that initial year in law school, our first son, Jamie, was born. Nothing concentrates the mind like military service and being married with a child. Practicing the Five Ps to exhaustion, I made the law review and graduated with honors, but I wasn't much fun to be around.

We never considered settling anywhere except Houston. My family was there. So, too, was Baker Botts, the law firm where three James A. Bakers before me had hung their shingles.* I would have been happy to follow in their footsteps, but the firm had an ironclad antinepotism rule. My father was still practicing there, so I could not.

Thanks to my academic record and my name, the partnership considered making an exception for me, but eventually decided against waiving the rule. I was disappointed. Baker Botts was all I knew. In the end, however, their decision was the best thing that could have happened to me. Had I succeeded at a firm so closely identified with my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, neither I nor anybody else would have been able to say with certainty whether my success was based on my skills or my name. Going to another firm gave me a chance to sink or swim on my own.

That other firm was Andrews, Kurth, Campbell & Bradley. It was a smaller but also well-respected firm with a blue-chip roster of clients that included Howard Hughes. When I joined in 1957, the firm had thirty-five lawyers, and I was only the seventy-eighth to have been hired in the firm's fifty-five-year history. It was a wonderful place to work. The philosophy of the practice was collegial, we were proud of AK and its history, and we were loyal to the firm and one another.

"We're going to assign you to Harry Jones," said Mickey West, the firm's chief recruiter. "What an opportunity!"

And it truly was. The man who would become my mentor was warm, gentlemanly, brilliant, and pragmatic, the smartest practitioner I've ever known. In law school, I had briefed every case so thoroughly that I often got lost in the details. If not for Harry Jones, I might have followed the same dead-end path in my practice. He taught me to get to the heart of the matter.

I would sit across from him in his corner office while he read what I'd written. "Is there anything more on this?" he would ask in a nonthreatening and professorial voice. The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff or, less delicately, to cut through the BS in a written memo or a face-to-face negotiation, not only served me well at the law firm, but has also been one of my strengths in politics and public service. I owe much of that to Harry Jones, a lawyer's lawyer.

In 1957, the practice of law was not as specialized as it is today. Andrews Kurth was just beginning to establish departments. In law school they told us that real lawyers tried lawsuits, so I asked to be assigned to the trial section. I soon found myself sitting second chair down at the courthouse as one of our lawyers tried a personal injury case. Our client was an insurance company bound by contract to provide a defense for its policyholder. It seemed obvious to me that witnesses were lying under oath and that nothing was being done about it. I didn't want any part of that, so I said goodbye to litigation and hello to a general business law practice -- mergers and acquisitions, corporate and securities work, oil and gas, banking, and real estate.

As I approached forty, life was good. Our marriage flourished. Three more boys -- Mike, John, and Doug -- followed Jamie. We joined a couple of country clubs. And thanks to Mary Stuart, we could be described as a churchgoing family. My father was raised a Presbyterian. Mother had for a while been a Christian Scientist and for one year I went to Sunday school at her church. Dad was not a churchgoer, although he was a man of faith. He was a workaholic who spent Sundays at the office. On his way to work those mornings, and after that first year of Sunday school at Mother's church, he would drop Bonner and me off for Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church near his office in downtown Houston, to learn the hereditary faith of my Scottish forebears. After class, we'd join him at work.

I remember first getting a sense of fulfillment out of religion when I was at the Hill School. We attended chapel every day, and I found myself enjoying the hymns and learning a little how to pray. I was a nonobservant Christian in college and attended church only occasionally in the Marines and during law school.

Mary Stuart was a better Episcopalian than I was a Presbyterian, and when we married, I switched. I didn't think about it at the time, but my ancient Baker ancestors may have turned in their graves when I left the faith they had brought across the ocean from Scotland and went over to the "English" church they had spent so many centuries railing against. In Houston we attended St. Martin's fairly regularly. I found the services rewarding and eventually served on the vestry, the committee of lay members who help manage the parish, but my faith then was not nearly as important to me as it is now.

Like my father, my church on Sundays was often my law office. Workaholic is an overworked term, but it describes me during those first twelve years of practice. I made time for tennis and indulged in my lifelong desire to escape to the country every once in a while to hunt and fish and clear my head, but Mary Stuart and I took very few real vacations.

Houston was my world, and I never dreamed of living anywhere else or doing anything besides being a lawyer. Politics was not in the picture. The most that can be said of me politically is that I voted . . . in some elections anyway. Oftentimes I did something else instead.

Texas still hadn't forgotten that Republicans were in office durin Reconstruction, so like just about everyone else in the state at the time, I was a Democrat. And like many other conservative Democrats in the 1950s, when I voted, I voted for my party's candidates in local and state elections and for the Republican candidate for president. Mary Stuart was different. She came from a long line of Republicans in Ohio, and she remained active in the small Texas branch of her party, even serving as a precinct captain and often as a campaign worker for local candidates.

I sometimes wonder whether, if Mary Stuart had stayed healthy, I would have kept out of politics for my entire life. But in February 1968, she noticed a lump in her breast. Her doctor told her not to worry; the lump was most likely just mastitis, a side effect of being on birth control pills, which were relatively new at the time. "Come back if it persists," he said.

That summer we took a fishing trip into the mountains of Wyoming, camping at the same spot near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River where my father and I had camped to hunt elk twenty-four years earlier. By the end of the trip, Mary Stuart had lost all her stamina. The lump was now hot and red. Not too long after we returned, one of America's best surgeons, our friend Denton Cooley, performed a mastectomy. In the waiting room after the surgery, he didn't say, "She doesn't have a chance," but I sensed he was telling me to prepare for the worst. I was scared and depressed, but hopeful.

We were building a new home. Mary Stuart had designed it, and she continued to watch over construction. As the months passed, however, the cancer spread to her bones, and it was clear that she wasn't going to make it.

From the time I met her in Bermuda in 1950, I never dated anyone else. She was a gorgeous and bright woman, a devoted wife, and a loving mother.

We were close, but -- whether out of fear or uncertainty or, more probably, concern for the other -- we never talked openly about her real prognosis. She never told me she knew she was dying, and I never told her that I knew she was dying. That knowledge hung over us like a dark cloud in those last months. She did write me a goodbye letter. I found it after her death. Dated November 29, 1969, and addressed to "My dear sweet loving and lovable Jimmy," it reads in part:

Though my time to die may not be far off, it is not now. I am not afraid ... My darling, it has been a beautiful life. We have been fortunate in so many ways ... Since the night I kissed you on the beach in Bermuda I have loved you more than anybody could ever love another body. The only thing that makes me sad about dying is leaving you and the boys. I often wonder what they will be like as grown men. Since they are half you they will have some good qualities in them ... God and I will watch over you and the boys and keep you safe ... Don't be sad. Rejoice and come to me someday.

My instinct from earliest memory has been to keep personal things personal. These few words reveal something about Mary Stuart's spirit that is worth sharing, however, not only for the sake of her children and grandchildren, but also as a model for others of how this young woman's faith gave her the courage to accept her own mortality so serenely.

When the house was just about finished, we took her over the threshold in a wheelchair. She never got to live in it. Within days, she had lapsed into a coma. The boys were ages seven, eight, thirteen, and fifteen. I never told them she was dying -- a mistake I now profoundly regret.

Most nights while Mary Stuart was in the hospital, I had slept on a cot in her room. One evening, however, I went home for a shower and some rest in my own bed. The hospital called during the night and said, "You'd better come over here." When I arrived, Mary Stuart was breathing heavily. I held her in my arms, only the two of us, and I told her what a wonderful wife she'd been and how much I loved her. She made a little sound, and I like to think she heard me. She died a few hours later at 11:00 a.m., February 18, 1970. We had been married for sixteen years. The boys and I were devastated.

Eight months earlier, my tennis doubles partner had suggested that I file for the congressional seat he was vacating to run for the Senate. He and his wife were our good friends and had experienced their own tragedy with cancer in 1953, when their three-year-old daughter died of leukemia. I told him I was flattered, but given Mary Stuart's illness, there was no way I could do that.

After Mary Stuart died, that same friend suggested that I work on his senatorial campaign to take my mind off my grief. I thanked him for his concern and said there were two problems with that -- "Number one, I don't know anything about politics, and number two, I'm a Democrat."

He chuckled. "We can take care of that second problem."

We did, and he put me in charge of the Houston area. I dotted the i's and crossed the t's, and we carried the county but lost statewide. Still, from that time forward, I was hooked on politics and forever linked with the candidate, George Herbert Walker Bush.

I first met the man I have called "George," "Bushie," "Mr. President," and now "Jefe" (the Spanish word for chief or boss) in 1959, when he moved his family (Barbara and their five children) and his business (Zapata Offshore Company) to Houston from Midland, Texas.

George and I shared a passion for tennis, and we became doubles partners at Houston Country Club -- although I still preferred and continued to play singles. We were both extraordinarily weak servers, but George was excellent playing net and volleying, while I had very good ground strokes. We complemented each other nicely and won back-to-back club doubles championships in 1966 and 1967.

George and I would also play pickup games with the club pro, Hector Salazar, and Hector's recruited partner of convenience. To me it was clear that Hector was playing just hard enough to take the match to three sets and make us believe we were almost as good as he. George was so competitive, so certain that we were elevating our game, however, that I'm not sure he ever quite realized we were being conned. George is genuinely personable, easygoing, and considerate of others -- a truly wonderful human being -- traits that come through in face-to-face meetings and on television. What sometimes doesn't come through is his competitive spirit and steely determination, which I first encountered on the tennis court and which strengthened him for success in business and politics.

Our friendship on the tennis court carried over to our homes. Mary Stuart and I occasionally entertained the Bushes and were frequent guests at their weekend barbeques. When he ran for office, Mary Stuart worked in his campaigns.

Lone Star Republicans were a lonely lot back in 1960. The state was overwhelmingly Democrat and had not elected a Republican statewide since Reconstruction. Some inroads had been made, however. At the presidential level, native son Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in 1952 and 1956, thanks in part to a Democrats-for- Eisenhower movement led by Governor Allan Shivers.

Mary Stuart was undaunted by the strength of the opposition party or the weakness of her own. In 1958, she became our precinct's Republican chairperson and held the precinct's first-ever convention in our house. One other guy showed up! I served the two of them drinks while Mary Stuart conducted the meeting and did the paperwork.

Within a few years Republican prospects had brightened. In 1961, an obscure college professor and Democrat-turned-Republican, John Tower, won a special election against several vote-splitting Democrats for the Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson when he assumed the vice presidency.

George Bush entered the fray the following year. Republicans afraid that the ultraconservative John Birch Society might take over the local party asked him to lead the county GOP organization for the Houston area. Two years later, he entered the statewide primary to become the party's candidate for the U.S. Senate. He won the nomination but lost the general election to the incumbent Democrat, Ralph Yarborough, who rode LBJ's long coattails in the 1964 presidential election.

George was undaunted. In 1966 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against a popular local district attorney, Frank Briscoe. In winning he became the first Republican congressman from Houston since Reconstruction.

I was not involved in George's first race for the Senate. In his campaign for Congress, however, I gave him some money, went to a few events, and voted for him. Still, I wasn't ready to call myself a Republican. In fact, I lent my name to the steering committee of a group of attorneys supporting Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr, the candidate anointed by establishment Democrats in 1966 to recapture LBJ's old Senate seat from John Tower, the upstart professor. Thanks to an election-day boycott by liberal Democrats, however, Tower won again.

My political schizophrenia was often challenged by Mary Stuart and her Republican friends. One of those friends, Susan Winston, was married to a hunting buddy of mine, also a lifelong Democrat. "C'mon, you guys," Mary Stuart and Susan would tell us. "We know you vote Republican in the fall. Things aren't going to change until you get religion and convert to the GOP."

During his first term, George sat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. By 1968, he was on the short list of Richard Nixon's potential vice presidential running mates. When Nixon selected Spiro Agnew, George ran for reelection to Congress and won easily. Then, with his eyes on a higher prize, he gave up his safe House seat to run for the Senate again in 1970. This was the race in which I got my feet wet in politics, switching parties and coordinating the Bush campaign in Harris County.

George had backers far more powerful than I. Both President Nixon and (privately) former President Johnson encouraged him. They sensed that the liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, could be defeated by a moderate opponent. They were right, but unfortunately for George, that opponent ended up being Lloyd Bentsen, who beat Yarborough for the Democratic nomination and took the steam out of the "Anybody But Ralph" movement. Lloyd, a fine man who would become a friend of mine in later years, easily defeated George. Ironically, George, who had planned to run as the conservative alternative to the liberal Yarborough, found Bentsen portraying himself as the conservative alternative to an allegedly liberal Bush. George did carry Harris County, where both he and Lloyd lived, with 61 percent of the vote.

When I agreed to help George, I knew nothing about running a campaign organization. With the help of George's skilled campaign manager, Marvin Collins, I quickly learned that the operative word is "organization." The Five Ps proved invaluable.

For some time after Mary Stuart died, I was, quite simply, out of it. In addition to George, many others helped me cope. Harry Jones said, "You just take off whatever time you need." And I did.

Moving into that big house on Greentree Road that Mary Stuart had designed was painful. Less than three months after her death, I marked my fortieth birthday there with many of her friends and their husbands. Later they presented me with a portrait of her.

These same friends helped me find housekeepers. I use the plural because several did not work out. The boys didn't like one of them, and one of them liked me a little too much.

During these difficult months, I would come home from the law firm or the campaign, help the boys do their homework, get them to bed, have a drink to take my mind off things, have a second drink, and then maybe one or two more. I kept thinking that Mary Stuart might have survived if her doctor had diagnosed the cancer on her first visit, even though it was an aggressive malignancy.

Alcoholism runs on both sides of my family. Why didn't I succumb? In part because I always feel nauseated after three or four drinks. In part because I had my work -- be it law, politics, or public service -- to divert me. And in part because so many of Mary Stuart's friends, the wives of my friends -- Fran Lummis, Mary Wilson, Kay Sharp, Susan Winston, Joanne Baker, Dossy Allday, Julia Wallace, and many others -- rallied to our side, and were there in so many ways for my boys. Mostly, though, I owed it to those four boys not to succumb.

Susan Winston had her own worries during this period. Her marriage to my friend James (Jimbo) Winston ended, and she and her three young children endured some very dark days. The Winstons divorced, and in 1974 Jimbo died of pancreatitis. He was thirty-eight, the same age as Mary Stuart when I lost her.

About a year after Mary Stuart's death, I began to date. After going out with Susan, I never dated anyone else. Love blossomed out of friendship, and we married in August 1973.

Susan, eight years my junior, is the daughter of Jack and Mary Garrett. Her father, "Whispering Jack," was a well-known Texas rancher and rice farmer, and she grew up on a large ranch near Danbury, a tiny town near the Gulf of Mexico some forty miles south of Houston. He died on Christmas Eve of 2005. Her lovely mother died on January 31, 2004. Susan went to college at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied a liberal arts program. She is a beautiful woman with great common sense, a wonderful spirit, and unwavering faith.

Susan had been a very close friend to Mary Stuart, but we had much in common beyond our love for Mary Stuart. We were both struggling single parents, and our combined seven children knew one another. We both loved the outdoors. And by this time, we both had an interest in politics -- Republican politics. Susan's family had worked for the GOP when it was a dangerous thing to do.

We will always regret our big mistake in the way we went about getting married. We wanted to do it on my mother's birthday, August 6, because she kept encouraging us to marry. It had been a hard year for her. Dad, long incapacitated by Parkinson's disease, had passed away that May. Because Susan was Catholic and divorced, the Episcopal Church to which I belonged (and served on the vestry) refused to marry us. Fortunately, Dad's Church, First Presbyterian, was willing. The minister, Jack Lancaster, a real man of God and a wonderful guy, performed the ceremony in the chapel. Only Susan and I were present -- no family or friends. We had conspired to bring Susan's mother in from Danbury for lunch at my mother's house. We went there directly from the church to share our surprise. Both moms were ecstatic.

It was a different story with the seven kids. They were shocked. To them, the suddenness and secrecy of our marriage were close to family treason. We should have prepared them in advance. Our failure made the job of blending our families -- difficult enough in the best of circumstances -- much tougher. It took a while, but thanks to Susan's heroic efforts, we succeeded. My four (Jamie, Mike, John, and Doug) and her three (Elizabeth, Bo, and Will) soon became our seven. We added Mary Bonner in 1977. At this writing, Susan and I have seventeen grandchildren. We lost one of Jamie's girls -- sweet Graeme, only seven years old -- when she drowned in a neighbor's pool in 2002. She was a gift on loan to our family from God. Susan and I treasure the seven years she was with us, and her loss reminded us again how precious is our time with those we love.

At the time of our marriage, I was an acknowledged Republican. Participating in George's campaign for the Senate had awakened a sense of adventure and high challenge that was missing from the daily practice of law. I wasn't ready to quit the practice or run for office, but I was ready for something different. After the election, party leaders asked me to become state finance chairman.

This was, I knew, a thankless job. In trying to raise money for the party, I would be competing against committees seeking funds for two popular reelection candidates, President Nixon and Senator Tower. Candidate money is considerably easier to raise than party money, particularly for a party as weak as the Texas GOP was back then. Still, I accepted. I had to start somewhere.

Actually "somewhere" was everywhere. I had a small paid staff in Austin and many volunteers around the state, but I spent many a day driving to fund-raisers around our huge state and to party meetings in the capital. That's how I first got to know Senator Tower and Anne Armstrong, who had been a counselor for President Nixon and vice chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In 1972, I also coordinated the Nixon reelection effort in the fourteen-county Gulf Coast area of Texas. At George Bush's request, I organized a fund-raiser, and without using notes, the president gave a magnificent tour d'horizon on foreign policy. He seemed comfortable while speaking, but was clearly ill at ease in face-to-face meetings at the event. I remember his handshake as brief, formal, perfunctory.

We met a number of other times when I was in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and he periodically wrote me letters with suggestions on campaign strategies and foreign affairs. I was always respectful of him, but I find it hard to forgive him for betraying the country in the Watergate scandal. He lied to the American people, and with the release of his tapes in later years, his reputation fell lower and lower.

Watergate was traumatic, but in a way it demonstrated the strength and resilience of our system. The president's malfeasance was discovered, and within a relatively short time, by history's measure, he was gone. I wish we had just declared victory, thanked the Founders for their foresight, and moved on. Unfortunately, we tried to fix a system that, though imperfect (as all systems are and forever will be), wasn't broken. One thing we got in return was a generation of unaccountable independent counsels who investigated and attempted to criminalize every political controversy, a dreadful idea that was finally allowed to die a well-deserved death in 1999.

Nixon also betrayed the Republican Party and all of us who had worked hard for him, taken his claims of innocence at face value, and defended him in the early months of the scandal. He cost the party, as well as the nation, a great deal. After Watergate, Republicans suffered a political bloodbath. I will never forget my eldest son, Jamie, telling me right after Watergate broke that Nixon was behind it. I told him he and his hippie friends didn't know what they were talking about. The night Nixon announced he was resigning, Jamie called and said, "I told you so. But I'm proud to be an American, because the system worked."

When I was secretary of the treasury, Nixon wrote me to say he was giving up his taxpayer-supported secret service protection and would henceforth assume the cost personally. That was a noble thing to do. He deserves credit for opening relations with China, his serious efforts to disengage from Vietnam with honor, and other accomplishments, but I think his achievements will forever be overshadowed by the fact that he is the only president who has had to resign the office in disgrace.

In 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned (also under a cloud), George Bush was on the short list to replace him as VP, a position that went instead to Gerald Ford. At the time, George was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Before that, he had served as our ambassador to the United Nations. Some say he would have preferred that President Nixon name him treasury secretary instead of sending him to the United Nations, but -- much to George's disappointment -- that job was given to former Texas Governor John Connally, a Democrat and a Nixon favorite.

When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Vice President Ford took the oath of office as president. A poll of Republican officeholders put George on the top of the list to replace Ford as VP. I, along with many others, sent a telegram to Ford extolling my friend's virtues. Ford considered George but chose Nelson Rockefeller. George was asked to head our delegation in China, and he left for Beijing in 1974.

During this period, I decided it was time for me to do something different. The excitement of politics made me restless as a lawyer. I lacked Washington experience, but I had several things going for me. One was enthusiasm. I was ready for new challenges. Another was a work ethic grounded in the Five Ps. My father and the Marines had also taught habits of personal discipline that expressed themselves both in my personal behavior -- polished shoes, neat suits, moderation in eating, drinking, and spending -- and in my professional work. In addition, Harry Jones had taught me to organize and prioritize my work, to focus on what was achievable. To this day, I make lists -- Point 1, Point 2 -- to organize my thoughts and my labors. I had also developed certain ways of dealing with colleagues and staff that would prove useful. (More about that later.) Finally, I was blessed with good health and stamina, which I always tried to preserve by exercising and getting outdoors as much as possible.

As a lifetime lawyer, my first choice for public service was the Justice Department, where I hoped to serve as assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division. In seeking such jobs, however, you don't call the White House; the White House calls you, and almost always after someone with clout has put in a good word. My interview with Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, scheduled for April 30, 1973, came courtesy of a good word from George Bush (although he never admitted it). The timing couldn't have been worse. Kleindienst resigned that same day, a casualty of Watergate. Goodbye interview. A few weeks later, I got a nibble about serving as the head of enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, but I wasn't interested.

Two years passed. I was still in Houston, still practicing law, raising seven children with Susan in the house on Greentree. But, having a close friend playing in the Big Game of politics and public service, I was growing ever more restless.

In June 1975 another opportunity presented itself. Again, thanks to George, I suspect, I was being considered for a high-level position. I met with Rogers Morton, who had recently replaced Fred Dent as secretary of commerce. Cabinet members are generally allowed to pick their own deputies, and Morton was looking for a number-two person with whom he would feel comfortable. Morton -- a gentle giant from Kentucky, a wonderful man, and an outstanding public servant -- interviewed several candidates for the spot, including some being pushed by the White House. A few days passed. Nothing.

I was on Interstate 10 between San Antonio and Houston, returning home from picking some of our kids up at summer camp. Checking in with my office from a roadside restaurant, I learned that Rogers Morton had called me. To learn my fate, I called the secretary of commerce of the United States from a pay phone outside a Stuckey's restaurant.

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