Former Judge James E. Baker might have had a relatively small crowd Thursday morning at Westminster College, but he had a bigger audience in mind.
"I was really talking to the people in Washington (D.C.): Knock it off, the both of you!" he said. "You can figure out for yourself who I'm talking to — it may be more people than you think."
Baker is the former chief judge to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He's also spent time on the National Security Council, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Intelligence Oversight Board. He currently directs the Institute for National Security & Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.
Standing in the history-steeped Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury in these "divisive times," Baker said he felt a "sense of duty to deliver a speech."
His focus: Lessons he thinks modern American government should learn from the Cold War.
Baker started with his bona fides as an apolitical observer. He grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1960s and '70s, before joining the Marines at age 18.
"My drill instructors called me a communist when they found out I was from Cambridge and Yale, and my classmates called me a conservative when they found out I was in the Marines," he said. "I never spoke in class and rarely outside of class, so it would've been impossible for anyone to have known what I was or wasn't. Do not judge the book by the cover, we are told, but we do it all the time."
At the request of then-New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Baker resigned, joined the reserves and came to work for Moynihan in D.C. He grew to admire Moynihan's big-picture outlook, integrity and ability to reach across the aisle to work with apparent political opponents.
"He had that sense that Ronald Reagan had, that America was a shining city on a hill, and we ought always act like it," Baker recalled.
Years later, after being nominated to become a judge, Baker wrote down his political affiliation as "American" and was told that was not among the choices. He settled on "independent" instead.
Moynihan's world view was shaped by his experiences facing down "war and tyranny" during the Cold War, Baker said.
First, there's the importance of the big picture. Baker pointed out former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill kept his eyes focused on vigilance against war and tyranny.
"If you shape the mission with clarity like that, you will never lose sight of how you should order the priority of your work policy when principle confronts expedience," Baker said.
Second is commitment to one's allies as a valuable asset in defending the freedom and rights of all people.
Third: A scrupulous attention to telling the truth, especially in the face of enemy propaganda.
Fourth, and the main focus of Baker's speech, is upholding and protecting the law.
"One of the things that united America in the Cold War was the importance of law as a bulwark against tyranny," Baker said.
As a former judge, Baker has a strong love for the law. That doesn't just mean the laws as determined by legislators and interpreted by the courts, however.
"Law is an attitude, and it is a culture of commitment to norms that bring law to life," he said.
Those norms include a free press, protection of minority rights and division of power. That's why, he said, America's enemies, including Russia, are so focused on undermining our elections, courts and press. Law also guides national security — its values and processes.
"Law depends on the moral integrity and courage of those who wield its power," he said. "There is also choice in which values we accent and how we deal with the twin pressures of expedience and personal preference."
Baker said our country is failing at teaching law. The focus in law schools is on merely teaching the letter of the law, rather than "what it means to live in a constitutional democracy, and the constant commitment to legal value it takes if we are going to continue to do so."
"We have a choice to make," Baker said. "We can treat law solely as a tool — the authority to act and thus a spoil of power and a tool of power. Or we can treat it as the essential reservoir of values that makes a democracy a democracy."
He pointed to the United States' recent withdrawal of troops from Syria as an example of failure to learn from the Cold War's lessons, especially about the importance of allies and big-picture thinking. That withdrawal left Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS vulnerable to attack by Turkish troops.
"If you cut and run on your allies, no one's going to trust you," he said, adding there seems to be "no discernible national security process in the current administration."