Montana’s longest serving senator and the former U.S. ambassador to China reflects on today’s political climate from the ‘radical middle’
BY TODD WILKINSON
The elder American statesman, looking deceptively younger than the mileage on his political odometer, strides forth in a flannel shirt, jeans and running shoes. All week he’s been appearing on national television news programs. In the hours of this early March day still to come, Max Baucus will be interviewed by more talking heads in New York and Washington, that distant capital city where he wielded tremendous power and clout.
Now, as he turns off a Main Street sidewalk, slipping into the lobby of the Baxter Hotel, few in Bozeman, Montana, appear to immediately recognize him. For the first time since 1972, he is no longer a man with a formal political title attached to his name—not “Ambassador,” “U.S. Senator” or “Congressman,” state legislator, or even candidate Baucus. He is in a new unfamiliar phase he calls simply “Ordinary Citizen” Baucus—and he is ebullient, “darned glad,” he says, to finally be home.
“Within a day or two after Mel and I returned to Montana, I emailed a friend back in Beijing telling him I had just gone on a run outside in the clean air. I typed the words ‘CLEAN AIR’ in all caps,” he notes.
For Max Sieben Baucus, the notion of breathing freely again isn’t merely literal. At age 75, he still boasts the good knees that enabled him to complete eight marathons and countless 10-kilometer races, giving him the prestige as a diehard harrier on Capitol Hill. His recent stint as former President Barack Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to China (2014-2017) is likely to be his last as a civil servant.
Born a Helena rancher’s son in 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Baucus and his third wife Melodee are now building a home along the western foothills of the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman, seeking what they hope will become a slower-paced life.
Yet on the day we meet, major media outlets are hounding him, wanting to know: What does he think about President Donald Trump’s unproven accusations that Obama, while still in the White House, wiretapped Trump’s phone lines? What does he make of the GOP’s initial failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the health care law Baucus had been instrumental in crafting? And what dangers does he see gathering on the horizon with the Trump administration disavowing key trade and climate agreements?
Relaxed, jocular and maybe exerting bolder candor than he’s wielded in half a lifetime, Baucus let loose on topics ranging from the rise of neo-populism to the state of democracy.
“I think the more our president makes statements that, off the top, seem totally ridiculous, the more it tends to damage our prestige worldwide,” says Baucus, freshly returned from a three-year post in Beijing.
Normally, Baucus’ understated way of doing things could drive zealots on the far right and far left crazy. And yet today in our deeply divided country, he could be regarded as a poster child for the “radical middle” of American politics. It’s a realm of centrism where things historically got done but no one anymore, he notes, seems to want to go there—to that dreaded place of compromise.
As a Treasure State Democrat cut from the cloth of his idol Mike Mansfield, Baucus has reverence for the art of political deal-making that puts country before party loyalty or personal profit. It is the only kind of legislating, he says, that lasts.
Mansfield was the Brooklyn, New York-born, Butte copper miner, who served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1943 to 1977—16 of those years as the longest-serving senate majority leader—and capped his career as both Democrat Jimmy Carter’s and Republican Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Japan. Mansfield was also a dear friend of President John F. Kennedy.
Other party giants Baucus reveres are Pat Williams, a Buttean and cousin of Evel Knievel, who served nine terms in the U.S. House, and the late Lee Metcalf, a four-term congressman who went on to become acting pro tempore of the U.S. Senate before he died in 1978.
THE ORIGINS OF A TREASURE STATE GIANT
One of the retired ambassador’s oldest and closest friends, Mike Miles, also grew up on a ranch outside of Helena. “Granted, ours was much smaller than the Sieben Ranch where Max spent his formative years,” Miles explains, noting his grandmother babysat Baucus as a child.
They attended Helena High where Baucus played fullback on the football team and when he wasn’t a starter, his hard work and enthusiasm made him a natural team leader.
A former Catholic priest who went on to become an author, instructor at Carroll College and today is professor emeritus in Montana State University’s Honors College, Miles served as a special assistant to Baucus when he became senator.
In temperament and disposition, Miles says, Baucus is a reflection of his mother Jean and adopted father John.
“His mother was educated and well read, an elegant, strong and very refined person,” Miles said. “Max would say he saw her as a combination of Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn and you know what, it was darned accurate. She had a graciousness and like many Montana ranch women, was tough, no pushover. Politicians who visited Max in Montana loved her.”
Baucus’ stepfather was tall both physically and in the way he rode in the saddle. “He was quiet, kind of a Gary Cooper type but transparent and dignified,” Miles says. “He didn’t believe in sharing his opinions unless he thought he had something useful to say and when he did offer something, you knew it had been well considered and you’d be wise to listen.”
Like his mother, Baucus attended Stanford University where he also earned his law degree, then was tapped in 1972 to be among a cross-section of citizens who assembled Montana’s first constitutional convention, considered one of the most progressive in the country.
"Max was the one who wanted to walk across Montana both to reconnect but also because he believed every county mattered."
From 1972 forward, Baucus never lost a political race. When he ran a successful long-shot bid to fill Metcalf’s seat in 1978, he commenced a tenure that made him Montana’s longest serving U.S. senator in history—holding a seat that had continuously remained in Democrats’ hands since 1952. Republicans won it back in 2014, when Bozeman businessman Steve Daines prevailed in a special election held after Baucus became ambassador. Many say it is indicative of a political shift in the state.
Miles points out that Montana has changed from being a progressive, pro-labor bastion owed to jobs in the resource extraction industries and sprinkled with prairie agrarian populists. Even as rural areas in eastern Montana have emptied and more of the state’s 1 million denizens cluster in cities closer to the mountains, the Treasure State has turned redder.
LEVERAGING THE RURAL WEST IN D.C.
On Capitol Hill, Baucus readily admits he was far better at formulating strategy than attaining distinction as a grandstanding orator. He still exudes a kind of bashfulness.
“Max is actually a nice guy, but to some that made him come across as an intellectual lightweight. He wasn’t a man in love with the sound of his own voice and, so compared to others, he seemed like a mumbler who speaks only in abbreviated, incomplete sentences. He didn’t behave like a cowboy, strutting and acting macho and stuff as some Western politicians do,” says Tim Crawford, a Gallatin Valley businessman, farmer and conservationist. “His critics often said he was aloof. He isn’t.”
In Washington, many politicians rise or fall based on the competence of their staff. Many of the people Baucus gathered around him went on to hold leadership positions in politics, business and academia, and reflect on their tenure with Baucus as being an important training ground.
Jim Messina, one of the senator’s acclaimed hires, became the mastermind behind Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 by using sophisticated data crunching to reach voters, especially young people.
Messina says that connecting with the entire electorate matters and Hillary Clinton’s inability to do so cost her the 2016 presidential election.
A legendary moment in Baucus’ career came in 1974, when he waged an underdog’s bid and walked 630 miles over eight weeks from Gardiner, Montana, until he reached the Yaak Valley on the Canadian border. The purpose: to listen to Montanans along the way. Some of them chewed Baucus’ ears off but were grateful that he heard them.
Baucus repeated the trek again in 1995 and 1996 to realign himself with the sentiments of constituents. He narrowly won his re-election bid over Denny Rehberg, who was aided by millions of dollars poured into the race by the Republican National Committee, a harbinger of how costly campaigns have become.
When Miles and Baucus barnstormed across the state in the ‘90s they never stayed in hotels but often on couches at constituents’ homes. “He might be Montana’s last great retail politician. Jon Tester gets out there and does a great job, but Max was old school,” says Miles, comparing him to Montana’s current populist Democratic U.S. senator, a grain farmer from Big Sandy.
Messina notes that Baucus had a sign on his desk in D.C. that read, “Montana Comes First.”
“Max really lived that, every day. Much like now, when I went to work for him there was all this buzz about micro targeting and giving up on rural areas,” Messina explains. “Max was the one who wanted to walk across Montana both to reconnect, but also because he believed every county mattered. We built these things called ‘Baucus Barbecue Bonanzas’ which were fun picnics with a band and beer in rural counties where Dems hadn’t campaigned in years. … He won every county we did a BBB in.”
"Max was a giant. He was probably one of the three or four most powerful people in Washington for years and continually used that power for his state."
I think of Mike [Mansfield] often,” Baucus says. “He was a role model because of his decency, courtesy, respect, honesty and humility. To be a good public servant, he said, you’ll always know who you are and what you ought to stand for, if you remember who you work for.”
Baucus heeded Mansfield’s advice by making time for his constituents. “Every couple of months, Max would have a work day in Montana,” said Brian Kuehl, who served as both Baucus’ legislative director and acting chief of staff. “These were opportunities for him to step into the shoes of people working in Montana.” Baucus stacked wood products in timber mills, slung food in greasy spoon restaurants, and mended barbed wire fences on ranches.
Baucus believed he could have his greatest influence by serving on committees setting tax policy and he became a gatekeeper of funding.
Every day, Montanans enjoy the work of Baucus’ unrelenting push to secure billions of dollars in federal highway funds. Montana is a “net donee” state, meaning that it gets far more from the federal government than it generates in taxes. Baucus made no apologies for using his authority on the Senate Finance and Environment and Public Works committees to give Montana a disproportionate influence.
Although he started his career as an unapologetic progressive, Miles said, Baucus knew that as the years wore on, appearing to be in lockstep with liberal Democrats from the coasts would never fly with his constituents. While he voted in favor of a ban on assault rifles, he resisted most curbs on gun ownership.
Politics is a blood sport. Although Baucus was a pragmatist, not a purist, he played the political game to win. He amassed enormous war chests, so that every six years he could make expensive media buys and fund grassroots campaigns to counter an inflow of Republican PAC money pouring into the state to beat him.
“Max was a fierce campaigner but also willing to leave campaigning behind once he was reelected,” Kuehl said. “That’s a lesson many other politicians could learn.”
As Baucus notes now, with pride, his fundraising acumen profoundly benefitted other candidates down-ticket in the state.
He laments the widely perceived softening of the Democratic Party’s grip in Montana, as evidenced by the GOP’s control of the state legislature. As senator and the party’s senior figurehead, he implemented a playbook not different from the current Republican Party. He insisted that candidates carry forward an integrated message where the success of one reinforced the success of another.
Baucus has huge admiration for the populist campaign of Bernie Sanders, who prided himself on receiving only small contributions from millions of supporters.
“I think one reason Bernie Sanders did so well in the Democratic primary, and Donald Trump did so well, is because a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats, are kind of ticked off. They’re angry,” Baucus said. “In the last 10 years, average incomes of Americans in real terms—that’s after inflation—have not risen, whereas most wealthy folks have done pretty well … Of course people should be upset about that.”
He deeply regrets the tidal wave of “dark money” in politics and yet he profoundly benefitted from it, in the form of liberal political action committees. Pulling no punches, he says there’s too much money in politics and it has resulted in a serious breakdown of comity, or respect between the parties, nationwide. The rift, he says, has been building for years, worsened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010. It’s accelerated with the advent of social media loaded with calculated fake news, the decline of the Fourth Estate (watchdog journalism), and the dumbing down of complicated issues into TV sound bites.
Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican, believes that Congress should pass a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn Citizens United and set limits on election spending. Baucus likes the idea but he says money will always be a corrupting factor in politics, one way or another. Despite this incendiary time of alternative facts, he has faith that truth eventually prevails.
“Americans aren’t dumb,” he says, claiming too that, over time, the composition of the Supreme Court will eventually reach a point where the corrupting influence of dark money will be contained.
Mike Miles’ late son, Sean, interned with Baucus, and tragically died in a car accident while on college break from Princeton University. The young man, who had worked for the Wilderness Society, left a profound impression on Baucus, so much so that the senator created a conservation fellowship that brought young Montanans to Washington to experience democracy in action. It was the only one of its kind.
When Baucus read a tribute to Sean into the federal register, Ted Kennedy, out of respect for Baucus and Miles, was there to listen.
Baucus openly expresses his admiration for Kennedy’s lyrical displays of forensics, “the liberal lion” that fired up the Democratic base and, with remarkable rhetorical pugilism, could eviscerate opposing positions.
Part of Baucus’ marvel for Kennedy stems from how he got along with perceived political foes and had their respect. After Kennedy’s theatrics were done, he and Republicans would retreat to chambers, Baucus said, carrying on debates respectfully, even socializing with each other. Simpson says the same thing and laments the erosion of comity in Washington.
Iask myself that question often,” Baucus says. “I don’t have a good answer.” He tells the story of how the private Senate dining room served as a sanctum for lawmakers to get to know each other personally. It fueled the spirit of working together, but the dining room closed down a decade ago as senators began spending time on fundraisers, and with lobbyists and party strategists. And mass media created feedback loops so that people only listen to those who reinforce their own views.
“Part of it is on us, too,” he says, meaning citizens. “If we want those in Washington, D.C., to exercise more comity, citizens have got to push for it and exercise more comity themselves.” The future of the U.S. will be more assured, he asserts, by maintaining an educated electorate.
Baucus, a lifelong hunter, angler and outdoor recreationist, is a fierce defender of the First and Second amendments. He points to the important role of the media but also expresses alarm over the epidemic of fake news. He found himself on the receiving end of it as debate over Obamacare hit fever pitch in 2009. Baucus went to the floor of the Senate and repudiated claims from Republican Sen. Roger Wicker that Democrats had frozen the GOP out of talks and were trying to “Europeanize” American health care.
After Baucus challenged Wicker and others, saying their claims would be considered libelous were they not protected by Senate bylaws, he soon got a dose of retaliation. The conservative Drudge Report posted a video on YouTube, which quickly went viral, claiming Baucus had been drunk while delivering his dress down of Wicker. Print media picked it up, but no one bothered to ask the senator himself, and the claim reached newspapers across Montana. It wasn’t true.
Veteran Montana journalist Mike Dennison looked into Wicker’s allegations and wrote: “Baucus, whose public speaking style can be halting and awkward, is not slurring his words …”
Baucus called newspaper editors demanding to know why they published it, without verification, and was told because everyone else had. Being a lawmaker in the age of social media is not something he misses.
What Wicker apparently didn’t realize when he invoked Kennedy’s name, outlandishly claiming he wouldn’t have approved of the Democrats’ tactics in passing Obamacare, is the full extent of Baucus’ friendship with Kennedy and the pledge he made.
Kennedy’s dream was seeing universal health care but knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see the Affordable Care Act passed. He summoned Baucus to his home in suburban Washington, as he was in hospice with brain cancer, and made him promise that, as Finance Committee Chairman, Baucus would ensure the football got carried over the goal line. The moment, many said, represented a passing of the torch.
With Obama’s election in 2008 and the volcanic eruption of the Tea Party, the GOP enforced a code not to cooperate with anything Democrats did. Shaking his head in disgust, Baucus said President Trump’s tweeted declaration that he would rather see Obamacare explode in order to blame it on Democrats, instead of working in a bipartisan way to serve the public interest, is shameful.
"I hate to say it, but it may have to get worse before it gets better and really hit rock bottom before we realize we can’t keep going on like this."
“Sometimes I’ve thought the U.S. Congress rallies together and Washington gets together only if there’s a crisis that demands extraordinary political leadership to be displayed, like when we responded together during the Great Depression, after Pearl Harbor, the Russian launch of Sputnik and 9/11,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it may have to get worse before it gets better and really hit rock bottom before we realize we can’t keep going on like this.”
In debates over prescription drug legislation and the deeply partisan question of whether the federal government should establish a single-payer health care system, Baucus was accused of being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.
The amount of campaign contributions he received during the first decade of the new millennium attracted intense scrutiny from the media and public interest watchdogs. Baucus vehemently denied any conflict of interest existed (note: he is not a multi-millionaire) and self-imposed a moratorium on receiving contributions from those industries in the months leading up to passage of Obamacare.
“Some would criticize Max, suggesting his moderation was really about political survival and that he lacked an ideological core,” says Montana State University political scientist David Parker. “I would disagree that his moderation lacked principle; rather, a willingness to find common ground is the height of political principle in an institution and political system that requires mediation and listening to function.”
Besides the Affordable Health Care Act, he lists the cleanup of toxic asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, as one of his greatest accomplishments. With tinges of anger, he mentions the W.R. Grace Company that tried to evade responsibility for generations of Libby residents exposed to deadly asbestos fibers related to mining—he fought to get them medical treatment.
He also mentions federal acquisition and protection of 300,000 acres of land owned by Plum Creek Timber, known as the Legacy Project—a deed that Eric Love, formerly of the Trust for Public Land, called Baucus’ greatest conservation achievement. Kuehl adds Baucus’ work in creating the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in the Madison Range, and securing funding for the cleanup of the Clark Fork River and copper tailings sites in Butte, which together formed the largest EPA Superfund complex in America.
Baucus doesn’t think the push to sell off public land will work because politicians know—or at least they should—that Westerners aren’t in favor of giving up the places they like to hunt, fish and recreate.
A voracious reader and avid student of history, Baucus has studied the ascents and declines of civilizations. He made eight trips to China as a senator to promote trade with the most populous nation on earth. Serving as ambassador reinforced his belief in the Thucydides Trap. “It’s a reference to circumstances that when a rising power causes fear in an established power, it escalates toward war,” he says, noting that China is the rising power.
Had Baucus not accepted Obama’s invitation to be the ambassador to China, many believe he could’ve served in the Senate to the grave.
“Max was a giant. He was probably one of the three or four most powerful people in Washington for years and continually used that power for his state,” Messina said. “For a rural state, his legacy will be felt for generations to come.”
But Baucus isn’t leaving public life completely. He donated the $850,000 remaining in his campaign funds to archive all of his papers related to his political career at the University of Montana. In the future, he’ll be commuting from Bozeman to Missoula to lecture at the Baucus Institute, part of the UM law school, and established to be a forum on the law, trade and cultural sharing.
Reflecting back on his career, he remembers nights sleeping on the couch at Mike Miles’ Bozeman house and interacting with Sean, the young man who understood that the future is created by being present in the here and now and making it count.
“Sean Miles, being the bright young conservationist he was, reminded me before he died, that we are but a part of nature and the circle of life. We are only on this Earth for a speck of time in the sweep of history and we’ve got to make the most of it,” Baucus said. “If we can all remember that, it will help us do the right thing.”
Starting his career as a violent crime reporter in Chicago, Todd Wilkinson has been a Montana-based national environmental journalist for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Washington Post. In 2016, the National Newspaper Association named Wilkinson’s “The New West” the country’s best serious column for small-town papers. He is also the author of Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.