In this current political era of hyperbolic bombast and us-versus-them partisanship, the dearth of civilized discourse can leave many in the middle yearning for a calmer climate. Fortunately, those who attended President Barack Obama’s appearance at Rice University were treated to a measured, mediative, and even merry conversation between two iconic statesmen — men of rival parties who profess genuine fondness and regard for each other and their legacies.
Former President Obama was in Houston for the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s 25th anniversary gala. Obama was joined by former Secretary of State James A. Baker for a discussion moderated by presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham.
The prevailing theme was bipartisanship; rather than a lengthy speech, Obama opted for a discussion on mending fences with Baker, according to sources. The Baker Institute is also heralded as a non-partisan political think tank. The gala raised a whopping $5.4 million for the center.
Obama and Baker addressed an A-list crowd of more than 1,000 Houston philanthropists, educators, and tastemakers in a makeshift, but elegant, gala tent at the center of the Rice campus. Ever the sports enthusiast, Obama greeting the audience with a football shout out: “Congratulations on the Texans' victory yesterday,” he offered. He also teased that he had visited Former President George H. W. Bush (“41”) earlier in the day.
The duo didn’t hold back on the current political zeitgeist, though they never mentioned President Donald Trump by name. (“He’s Voldemort,” said Meacham, invoking the Harry Potter character. “I won’t say his name.”)
"The responsible center in American politics has disappeared," said Baker, the institute’s honorary chair. "You have the advent of the internet, and that really makes it easy to be divisive. Divisiveness sells."
Obama agreed. "In the past, there were overlapping ideological spectra in each party. So there were people on both sides that you could have a conversation with. There were certain ideals no matter how they were viewed," he said. "There were certain ideals we had to follow because that was part of American leadership in the world and it was part of what made us a great country. Those are now being contested, in part because we don’t have this common base of information."
The pair also remarked on American exceptionalism. "American leadership in the world is absolutely imperative, no other country can do it," said Baker, who underscored that the U.S. won the Cold War "because we had alliances." Obama, who praised Baker’s accomplishments in international diplomacy, agreed. "We have a stake in making sure that we have our act together enough," he said. "Because everybody else, whether they admit it or not, tends to follow our lead."
Baker harped on the media’s role in the current political discussion. Obama responded: “By the time I took office, there was a change in the media environment where if you are a Fox News viewer, you have a different reality than a New York Times reader. It means that the basis of reporting is political.”
The former president also identified a heated factor that has dominated headlines. “One of the major fault lines in America was always race. We’ve made leaping changes to our laws and culture so that we were more likely to live up to the ideals of our Declaration of Independence. As that started happening, consensus started weakening.”
As talked turned to pride in respective accomplishments, Baker harked back to his impressive pedigree (the Houston native served under Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidents). “I’m most proud that I had the privilege of serving two presidents as chief of staff, of being secretary of treasury, of being secretary of state, of running five presidential campaigns, and of leaving Washington without getting indicted,” he said, garnering thunderous applause.
Obama cited his own no-indictment credentials. “Not only did I not get indicted, nobody in my administration got indicted,” he said. “It was the only administration in modern history that that can be said about. In fact, nobody came close to being indicted, probably because the people who joined us were there for the right reasons.”
For Obama, it was also a personal victory over Washington D.C. toxicity. “Michelle and I and our girls came out intact,” he recalled. “The core values that we brought into the office — tell the truth, try to see the other person’s POV, treat people kindly and with respect — we were able to sustain that in a difficult environment.”
A night filled with levity was marked by a particularly humorous and deadpan moment by Obama and Meacham. “The biggest challenge we’re going to have over the next 10, 15, 20 years is to return to a civic discussion in which if I say this is a chair, we agree this is a chair,” he said, patting his chair. “We can disagree on whether it’s a nice chair, whether we should replace the chair, whether you want to move it over there — but we can’t say it’s an elephant.”
“I thought we were against Obamachair,” Meacham quipped, not missing a beat.
“That was a nice chair,” Obama fired back. “I noticed the folks who tried to move it this last election didn’t have a good time.”