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The Secretary Speaks

Text of Keynote Speech by former Secretary of State James A. Baker
to 33rd Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., October 28, 2016

Baker at StateEddie Arrossi Photography

Secretary Baker was introduced by ICS Board of Advisers member Chris Matthews. He spoke in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room at the State Department on Friday, 28 October 2016, just four days before the Presidential election:

Ladies and gentlemen it is a privilege and an honor to speak tonight at the Winston Churchill State Department dinner. I suspect that most everyone in this room believes like I do that Churchill provided a brand of leadership that could serve as a model for us today: decisive, strong and unwavering. Of course, it is also very nice to be in front of an audience that wants to hear about something other than the Presidential election. At least, I hope that you’re here to listen to me speak about Sir Winston Churchill because when it comes to the 2016 election, I’m taking his advice about discretion—or as he once said: “We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” And so tonight, I hope to be a master…and not a slave.

My friends, there are three things that one must carefully consider before presenting a speech about Winston Churchill. The first one almost goes without saying. You will get a lot of knowing nods and laughs—and the audience will like you—if you generously sprinkle his quotes throughout the speech…because Churchill was a gentleman of equal parts intelligence, wit and bravado

After all, you have to admire a prime minister of one of the world’s oldest democracies who once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Better yet, perhaps, was his response to an American temperance campaigner who lectured him: “Strong drink rageth and stingeth like a serpent.” To which Churchill replied: “I have been looking for a drink like that all my life!” Or his admonition about determination: “If you’re going through hell…keep going.”

I don’t mind telling you tonight that that last quote was my mantra during our negotiations with Congress when I was White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and Chris Matthews was the spokesman for House Speaker Tip O’Neil. Those days were tough as Congress shut down the federal government eight times during Reagan’s two terms—a little remembered fact today. But Tip and the Gipper were a lot more interested in finding common ground than today’s politicians, and so they achieved historic legislation, like saving Social Security and achieving comprehensive tax reform. Yes, we found ways to compromise, which sadly, has become a dirty word today in Washington. Of course, working with Chris was hell. But it was worth it.

The second thing one should consider when preparing for to speak about Churchill is particularly appropriate for making one in 2016. Quite simply, make sure those quotes are authentic because one cannot be too certain of accuracy today with the World Wide Web.  I’ve already broken this second rule. Because frankly, Churchill never said: “If you’re going through hell…keep going.” The Churchill Centre has included that quote on a list of statements that he never made.

It seems that his recent biographer, Boris Johnson, has discovered other problems with some of those memorable Churchill quotes that we have adored for decades. We all remember when Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, told Sir Winston Churchill: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee.” And Churchill famously replied: “Madam, if I were your husband…I would drink it!” Johnson informs us that verbal slight first appeared in a joke-of-the-day column in the Chicago Tribune almost 40 years before Churchill’s supposed exchange with Mrs. Astor.

Another treasured Churchill line, supposedly said to a civil servant who objected to the use of prepositions at the end of sentences, was: “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.” Again, the joke originally appeared in print, this time in Strand magazine.

Some stories, of course, are just too good not to be told. One of them is a story about Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth, which I put in my memoir and which if it isn’t true, then it should be.

In 1981 or 1982, President Reagan was invited by Queen Elizabeth for his first state visit to the United Kingdom. We, the staff, were trying to figure out how to make the meeting a successful one.  So we decided to have the two world leaders ride horses together. Remember, the Gipper had plaque that read: “There’s no place better for the inside of a man than on the backside of a horse.” And the Queen, of course, raised racehorses and was also an accomplished rider. As President Reagan was visiting the Queen at Windsor Castle, after an obligatory photo-op, the two rode away, with the Queen in front. Her highness’s steed, perhaps suffering from a bad batch of oats, began to expel gas in a remarkably rhythmic way with each step. Somewhat embarrassed, she said, “Oh, dear, Mister President. I’m so sorry.” “Quite alright,” Reagan replied. “I thought it was the horse.”

Finally, the third thing to remember when preparing a speech about Churchill is to make sure that you accurately interpret the meaning of his statements. Even a great communicator can be misunderstood.

Consider this story. During World War II, Churchill was marking up a classified document that the Allied forces were waiting for in order to go into action. On one of the pages Churchill wrote, “Watch the borders,” referring to the manner in which the typist had left little room for him to make comments in the margins. When the Allied generals read the document, they believed that they were being advised by Churchill to watch England’s borders in the southeast in order to stop a possible enemy invasion there. Of course, there was no invasion. Luckily, this misunderstanding between Churchill, his generals, and the typist did not result in unnecessary death or devastation.

Today, fifty-one years after his death, people around the world still seek guidance from Churchill. The refrain “What would Winston do?” is often asked. For example, what would Churchill think about Brexit? The answer to that question, of course, depends upon who you listen to (or as he might have said, “The answer depends upon to whom you listen”) because there is no clear cut evidence about where he would stand. Biographer Boris Johnson, now also the British Foreign Secretary, has argued that Churchill would be on the side of Britain’s exit from the European Union.  Unsurprisingly, Johnson was a passionate supporter of Brexit.
On the other hand, journalist Martin Kettle offers the contrary argument that “everything we know” about Churchill suggests that he would “be a committed voter to remain” inside the European Union.

So, what would Churchill think about the 2016 US election? I think he would find merit in some of the positions of both the Democratic and Republican candidates—and considerable shortcomings, too. For example, Churchill would probably support the Democrat’s pledge of free college education and federal health care. Churchill, after all, was quite keen about liberal domestic policy, not unlike today’s Democrats, and he was a social reformer who, particularly as a Liberal Party leader prior to World War I, played a crucial role in the creation of Britain’s welfare state. When it comes to taxes, however, Churchill would be more in line with the Republican’s promise to lower them. “I contend,” he once said, “that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”

At this point, to help us understand this discrepancy between his adoration of the welfare state and abhorrence of taxes, I would like to use his famous quote: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” But I cannot use the quote with a clear conscience because the Churchill Centre has deemed it as not being attributable to him.

As for the spectacle of this election, I suspect that he would publically admonish the crass political gamesmanship both sides are playing at times. But privately, over a glass of brandy and a Cuban cigar, he might have a chuckle. After all, this was a man who once told a woman: “I may be drunk, miss. But in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

So, what would Churchill think today as he looked across the Atlantic and saw the United States fifty-one years after his death? He’d see a much different country than the one he admired, repeatedly visited and wanted as a strong ally for Britain. He’d see a country that has been marked over the last half century by great sadness and disappointment. A promising young president and an inspirational civil rights leader have been assassinated. The country has been domestically torn about by two divisive wars—the Vietnam War and the Second Iraq War. Meanwhile, Russia and the United States have returned to Cold War mode, China is emerging as a global rival to US preeminence and terrorism has killed Americans here in the homeland. Most ominously, the country’s fiscal debt load is reaching chronic proportions.

Too many Americans think that their country’s best days are in the rear view mirror—and Churchill understand that America’s politicians today would rather bicker with one another than roll up their sleeves and find solutions to the many challenges facing them. In other words, he would see an America that is politically dysfunctional.

Churchill would also recognize something else about us today. He would wonder: Is self-doubt starting to haunt Uncle Sam? He would think about that for a while, and then he would consider other things about his old friend. He would recognize that although America’s track record isn’t perfect, it has historically been a positive force for stability and freedom around the globe. And it continues to do so today in the struggle against global terrorism.

He would also understand that Americans are not interested in getting into other people’s sandbox—that when we engage globally, we are not in it for territory. That during the past century alone, we’ve fought seven wars for ourselves and for many others—six hot ones and a cold one. And, we’ve never asked for anything but enough ground to bury our dead.

Churchill might then consider other truly amazing aspects of the American experiment—space exploration, technological wonders and medical miracles. Yes, he would wistfully think that the United States is going through a very hard time. But that if he had to bet on it, he’d put his money on the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And then, he’d remember what he told the British Cabinet during his last meeting with it—“Never be separated from the Americans,” he warned. And his reasoning would be as simple and clear as ever. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing,” he’d muse, “after they’ve tried everything else.”

Thank you.

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