Delivered by Raymond D. Fosdick in 1937
Newton D. Baker
An address delivered at a memorial service in Cleveland, Ohio
By RAYMOND B. FOSDICK
ANYONE WHO attempts to understand the secret of Newton Baker’s amazing career must start, it seems to me, with this fact in mind : Mr. Baker had a full measure of the versatility of genius. He held one of those master-keys which unlock the doors of so many kinds of treasure houses. He was at once a great lawyer and a great public administrator. He was a distinguished scholar and writer, and perhaps the most eloquent and effective public speaker of his generation. He was a profound student of human problems and an active participant in every progressive type of social work.
In an attempted interpretation of Mr. Baker we have to start with this prodigal gift of talents, the amazing variety and vivacity of his mental energy. In the catholicity of his tastes and interests he resembled no one that I know of in the public life of America, present or past with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson. Those of us who crossed the ocean with him during the war remember the extraordinary scope of his reading. He read constantly everything he could put his hands on biographies, histories, literary criticism, detective stories. Even a book on the technique of gasoline engines seemed to hold for him a peculiar charm. At all times his intellectual curiosity was inexhaustible. You who knew him so well here in Cleveland will recall the quick eagerness with which his imagination fastened upon any new fact, caught its bearings and clothed it with color.
How a man can have such diverse interests and talents and still keep his balance and serenity is one of the mysteries of human personality. But with Mr. Baker balance and serenity were part of the texture of the man himself. As was said of Mr. Balfour, “his mind always retained its clear, tranquil outlook upon the human scene and its inexhaustible pleasure in the processes of thought.” This tranquil outlook was perhaps Mr. Baker’s most distinguishing characteristic. Whatever he touched, he touched with genius, but it was not the genius of the virtuoso. Rather it was genius framed in tolerance and simplicity, and anchored in the deep calm of his own spirit.
Genius and great talents do not always, indeed do not often, go easily with a capacity for friendship. With Mr. Baker, his affection for his friends knew no limits. He remembered everything that concerned them, and gave to all alike, high or low, famous or unknown, the wealth of his understanding. How often, in all the crushing responsibilities of his life, he found time to sit down and write a letter in long hand to a friend a gay, sparkling letter, perhaps, about some personal incident which had come to his attention, or a letter which showed a flash of his brilliant capacity for characterization. There must be literally hundreds of these longhand letters of his in existence, scattered around the world among his hundreds of friends. Like good conversation, letter writing, particularly among busy men, is a lost art. With Mr. Baker human contacts meant so much and were so essential to his outgoing spirit, that although he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew, he refused to sacrifice to busy interests the gracious art of friendship.
It is impossible on an occasion like this to describe the broad sweep of his talents and capacities or to cover the contributions that he made to the tone and quality of citizenship and to the meaning of public service. With so many facets to his life one is tempted to linger in admiration before them all. But as history writes the record he will be remembered, I would suppose, primarily for his supreme contribution to his country as Secretary of War. Those of us who were intimately associated with him in the War Department remember him there as a very simple and very modest man, a man who in his heart hated the pomp and power of the position assigned to him, but whose performance from start to finish was shot through with character and greatness which far too seldom attach to leaders of democratic effort. He brought to his task a mind as sharp and keen as any that has been seen in public office in our time. Indeed his mind was one of those rare combinations in which swift perception is balanced by judgment, and clarity and sanity run hand in hand. It was undoubtedly this quality which so attracted President Wilson to Mr. Baker, for Wilson loved above everything else an orderly and incisive mind.
But there was another quality which went along with Mr. Baker’s amazing lucidity and balance: he had a capacity for firmness, for decisiveness, which one hardly suspected on meeting him for the first time. Perhaps the secret lay in the fact that he was the son of one of Jeb Stuart’s old troopers. He looked like a quiet type of student, but his looks were deceptive. Beneath a scholar’s face, he had a will like iron and an ability to say “No” in a soft tone that left no doubt in the hearer’s mind that the question was definitely settled. There never was any misunderstanding as to whose hand was on the helm in the War Department. It was a quiet, unostentatious firmness, but it was rock-like in its solidity. This was one of the mysteries of his personality ; for the men by whom Mr. Baker was surrounded in the War Department were not pigmies ; they were not self-effacing “yes-men.” The army does not turn out that type of person. There were Bliss and March as Chiefs of Staff – – both of them powerful, dynamic characters. There were men like Crowder and Crozier and Goethals and Hugh Johnson. There was Pershing overseas who spoke from the shoulder and was accustomed to authority. And among them all moved Mr. Baker physically a little man, who never pounded a table and never raised his voice, but who intellectually was the acknowledged master of them all.
It was indeed an incredible performance. Here was a man who, while he had made an indelible impression on his city and his state, was not known to the nation at large when he came to Washington. In his first interview with newspapermen he was put down as a spineless pacifist who would last but a few months. They prophesied that the lions in the War Department and the tigers in Congress would soon eat him up. By sheer force of character, by the incisiveness and drive of his own mind he not only gained the ascendency over Congress and the army, but he mastered the administration of the largest collective enterprise in which this country has ever been involved.
And he performed this miracle with the quiet modesty and the serenity of spirit that were so characteristic of him. He never seemed excited and never was harassed. Even when things were blackest when, for example, he was himself the target of cruel, baseless charges he never lost his temper or his equanimity. He was utterly without cynicism. He was too judicial to be vindictive, too completely master of himself to be betrayed into anger. His spirit was cast in too large a mould for pettiness or vanity. I am quite sure that he never said anything bitter or unkind about anybody. He had the philosophic capacity to sit back and contemplate himself and the world with perspective and a quiet humor.
With him modesty and courage went hand in hand. He was the type of man who never wanted credit when things went right. On those occasions it was always somebody else who was responsible it was Pershing, it was Bliss, it was March. But if things went wrong, as they frequently did in the conduct of so gigantic an enterprise, then as Secretary of War he insisted on assuming the entire responsibility. I remember once that with some feeling of indignation a few of us tried to get him to dissociate himself from responsibility for an incident for which he was being widely attacked, but with which he had had nothing whatever to do. All we could get from him was the laughing comment: “What’s a Secretary of War for if it isn’t to take the gaff?”
This was Newton Baker. He had a fine carelessness about his own reputation. He asked for nothing except the privilege of serving. He wanted no reward.
Lord Morley said of Gladstone: “He so lived and wrought that he kept the soul alive in England.” It is to few men in public office or in
private life that such a tribute can be paid. But this was Newton Baker’s contribution to his generation. Here in Cleveland, here in Ohio, here in the United States, he was one of that small band that kept the soul alive. If even one of our universities, every four years or so, were able to turn out a Newton Baker, we could face the future with less foreboding. With that kind of genius for great citizenship, with that type of clarity and vision, the world of today and of tomorrow would not seem so troubled and so dark. But talents such as he possessed cannot be manufactured. They come from some alchemy of the human spirit which we do not understand. All that we can hope for is that from the same mysterious source America will produce other leaders like Newton Baker to keep the soul of this country alive.