'Wise Man' or wannabe?

Walter Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, is the coauthor with Evan Thomas of "The Wise Men" and the author of biographies of Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin. His biography of Albert Einstein will be published in April.

JAMES A. BAKER III has one great goal left as he hones his legacy: trying to make sure that the words "American statesman" appear in his newspaper obituary before the words "Florida recount." That's one reason he's so eager to make the findings of the Iraq Study Group, which he co-chairs, sagacious and bipartisan enough to ensconce him firmly in the pantheon of American "Wise Men."

I applaud the instinct. The Wise Men were a clubby, Cold War coterie; polished gents from a more statesmanlike era for whom sagacity was synonymous with bipartisanship. John J. McCloy was a Wall Street lawyer who helped run the War Department and then became U.S. high commissioner for Germany; Dean Acheson had been President Truman's secretary of State; W. Averell Harriman was a railroad heir who became President Franklin Roosevelt's special envoy; and Robert Lovett was a banker who became secretary of Defense.

The members of the group maintained their influence through much of the postwar 20th century. After they had grayed into elder statesmen, they were summoned back to the White House to advise Lyndon B. Johnson on what to do about the Vietnam War. At first, they suggested that he should stay the course, but by early 1968, they had generally come to the pragmatic and realistic conclusion that the U.S. had to disengage. Throughout their careers and into their old age, they were above all practical and realistic, beholden to no ideology or partisan agenda.

The question facing Baker today is whether he will end up being remembered as a latter-day Lovett, the most emblematic of the Wise Men, or whether he will fall on the other side of a subtle divide and be seen as more like Clark Clifford, who was a skilled statesman but remained a Wise Man wannabe because he could never quite shake his reputation as a partisan wheeler-dealer and manipulator.

By heritage and breeding, Baker most resembles Lovett. They had similar, indeed intertwined, backgrounds as scions of patrician Texas families. In the 1890s, Lovett's father and Baker's grandfather helped build the Houston-based railway law firm then called Baker, Botts, Baker and Lovett (the present James Baker is now a senior partner at the firm).

Like Lovett, Baker approaches issues with a cool yet vinegary pragmatism. Problems are meant to be solved, usually with a blend of firmness and negotiability devoid of emotion, ideology or sentimentality. There's one salient difference, however: Lovett was devoid of any partisanship. When Truman once made a political remark to him, he responded, "Remember, Mr. President, I'm a Republican." Truman replied, "Damn it, I keep forgetting." That's not a line likely to be uttered about Baker (who, among other things, oversaw the Florida recount in the 2000 election for George W. Bush).

Nor would it have been said about Clifford, who began his public career as Truman's counsel and campaign strategist. He was as smooth a Democratic operator as Baker has been a Republican one. Like Baker, Clifford had a velvet manner and the ability to touch his fingertips together in a way that could seem either sagacious or scheming, depending on who was watching.

When Johnson fired his controversial Defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Clifford was called from semi-retirement to replace him. But as hard as he tried to appear like a wise old statesman, he continued to be dogged by his reputation as a political fix-it man and corporate operative whose hands, as time went on, seemed faintly soiled by partisan maneuvers and Arab money.

It is, unfortunately, easy to understand why Baker -- and Lee H. Hamilton, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Sandra Day O'Connor and the other estimables in his study group -- have a difficult time achieving Lovett-like status in this day and age. The foremost reason is that foreign policy, like just about everything else in the age of blogs and cable TV and Florida recounts, is far more partisan.

In addition, politicians and the press play a substantially more aggressive gotcha game now than they used to. If he were around today, even a saintly gent like Lovett might have found himself on the defensive about the dealings of his partners and clients at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., Union Pacific Railroad and Pan American Airways.

Yet there is a fundamental way in which Baker and his study group members resemble the wise elders of earlier eras. It is not in their nature to be transformationalists or radical visionaries, the way that the neoconservatives and democracy crusaders have been. When they congregate to stroke their chins and reach consensus, not a whole lot of crockery is in danger of being broken. Instead, they will generally tend to be cautious, pragmatic and (yes) wise.

This is partly institutional: Blue-ribbon consensus-seekers tend not to embrace radical or bold visions. It is also personal, especially in the case of the pragmatic realist Baker. He was the secretary of State who urged President George H.W. Bush not to try to occupy Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and he cautioned against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 before it even began.

Having been slammed for these positions by the neocons, he had a difficult time in his recent memoir suppressing his smug awareness that their transformationalist dreams are now seen to have produced what may be the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history.

If Baker and his posse can come up with a plan that salvages some threads of our national interest from the debacle of Iraq, and if he stays around to help implement it, that would be such an awesome magic trick that those of us who dabble with the first drafts of history should reward him by carving a niche in the pantheon for him somewhere between Lovett and Acheson.

It's easy to disparage stability and containment as foreign policy goals (as the neocons like to do) and to make fun of blue-ribbon chin-strokers. But the aspiration to be statesmanlike, even if it is partly motivated by the desire to polish a legacy, is a welcome trait these days. So too is the courage to be cautious and the confidence to be humble when it comes to foreign policy.

In our search for contemporary Wise Men, there is one irony that the builders of the original Pantheon would have noted. The closest person we have to a true Wise Man is someone who should be the easiest for the president to tap but, for reasons that only Sophocles or Shakespeare (or perhaps Freud) could explain, is actually the hardest: President Bush the elder.

He was a great realist who choreographed the end of the Cold War and the prudent execution of the first Gulf War. In lieu of him, his consigliere, James Baker, will have to serve as proxy. Fortunately, he is eager to don the mantle.

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