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Sorting
Through It
After decades in public
office, Montana’s senior
statesman, Max Baucus,
is back home
BY SCOT T McMILLION

PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 11
W
hen I was a junior in high school, my
journalism teacher brought to class a young
politician named Max Baucus, who was
walking from Yellowstone Park to Canada
to draw attention to his run for Congress. I
don’t remember what he said. But I remember being impressed
with the big hike he was undertaking.
That was in 1974. Max Baucus won that race and every polit-
ical match that came his way later. Only one of them, in 1996,
was even close. A Democrat in a red-leaning state, he beat every
other opponent by at least 10 points. He served two terms in the
US House of Representatives and five in the US Senate, where
he ran the Senate’s most powerful committee, then topped it off
with three years as the American ambassador to China. At 75,
he says he loved it all, but won’t run for election again.
Now he’s back in Montana, living in a tiny guesthouse in
the Gallatin Valley with his wife, Melodee Hanes, and a frisky
pair of cats—a gift from a Chinese dissident. It’ll do until they
build a new home, hopefully breaking ground this spring. They
have hundreds of boxes to unpack and sort, three storage units
full, and more on the way. Baucus’ Senate papers will go to the
University of Montana, which is planning a Baucus Institute,
focusing on domestic and international policy.
Early in February, he sat down for an interview. He was on
the phone when we got there, in jeans and a casual shirt. No
shoes. One of the cats kept us company while he finished the
call and found some socks.
His attire seemed appropriate, because he seems to have
changed: still intense, still wonkish about details. I’ve inter-
viewed Baucus many times over the years, covered count-
less meetings, debates, listening sessions. He brought a raft of
foreign ambassadors and even the head of the Federal Reserve
Bank to Butte, Montana, hoping to boost the state’s prospects.
He was never shy about using his political clout to bring help.
But he hasn’t lived here since the 1970s.
This interview was different. No aides hovered, fixing his
tie, trying to vet questions. It was just us and the cats, Melodee
a little later.
“We’re home,” he said. “We’re in Montana for the same
reasons most people love Montana. We like to ski and hike
and raft.”
Baucus chose the Gallatin Valley for its scenery and for its
proximity to the Bozeman airport. His plans include plenty of “We have to stand up and not be
travel.
“I want to stay involved with policy, generally. I want to cowed or bullied. It’s mutual self
be involved around the country,” and internationally. With
his contacts and experience, he’d be a shoo-in for a lucrative respect. If that person crosses the
consultant or lobbying job. I asked if he’d been approached.
That got a grin out of him.
line you’ve got to stand up and not
“Well, we’ve had a couple,” he said. “I’ll try to keep let it happen.”

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Rating Max Baucus
Former ambassador and U.S. Senator Max Baucus was a
consistent moderate, a position reflected in his ratings by
various interest groups from both the left and the right. Few
of them gave him 100 percent ratings. Few gave him zeros
either, although abortion activists, both pro and con, provided
consistent exceptions.
The National Rifle Association most recently gave
Baucus an A+ rating, despite his 1996 vote to restrict some
assault rifles.
Some groups offer “lifetime” ratings. Others offer yearly
reports, which can vary widely as new issues arise. The
first chart shows Baucus’ lifetime ratings. The second chart
shows his most recent ratings. All statistics come from
Project Vote Smart.

Lifetime ratings
American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees 80%
Alliance for Retired Americans 78%
AFL/CIO 76%
League of Conservation Voters 69%
U.S. Chamber of Commerce 45%
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste 19%
Club for Growth 12%

Most recent ratings
American Federation of Teachers 100%
National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) 100%
NAACP 89%
Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund 75%
National Federation of Independent Businesses 75%
ACLU 73%
Americans for Arts Action Fund 55%
significantly involved in Asia, especially representing
American Wilderness Coalition 40%
Montana.”
Looking forward, he said America’s most important relation- Humane Society Legislative Fund 40%
ship will be with China, a country about the same size as the Republican Liberty Congress 37%
United States but with several times the population and one that
Christian Coalition of America 22%
will, in a decade or so, have a bigger gross domestic product.
Baucus said he admires the Chinese people in many ways. National Right to Life Committee 0%
“They’re so energetic and pragmatic and practical.

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 13
Competitive and almost survivalist,” he said. “They’ve survived
a lot and the Chinese have an ancient culture, one that thinks BAUCUS ON: The new administration
strategically and takes a long view. They’ve got a bounce in
their step now. I would too, if I was in their shoes.” Baucus said that, like a lot of people, the Chinese “are a little
The challenge, he said, lies in figuring out a way for two befuddled with Trump.”
great powers to work together, to make the gears mesh instead “I don’t think they take him that seriously,” he said. “But
of grind. I did say this, it’s going to be a rockier road for you Chinese.
For now, China and the United States play on an uneven Because you’re not being fair. It’s not a level playing field.
field and Baucus said it’s tilted in favor of China. The govern- Trump got elected because of people’s frustrations with jobs
ment there has selected 10 or 15 “champion” industries, and trade, including China.”
such as semiconductors, which it props up through subsidies, He said he urged Chinese officials to “come up with
with trade barriers that limit foreign presence, and with the something positive” to bring to the Trump administration.
purchase of foreign companies that own coveted technology. “Show that you know the playing field is unlevel. Take a posi-
There’s also a lot of theft going on, from bootleg products to the tive action first, show that you care and you want to work
stealing of intellectual property. with us.”
“We have to stand up and not be cowed or bullied,” Baucus One Chinese official asked for suggestions.
said. “It’s mutual self respect. If that person crosses the line “I said take our beef,” Baucus said. “He laughed and
you’ve got to stand up and not let it happen. It’s a simple laughed. I said it’s going to get rougher. And it should get
concept, more difficult in execution.” rougher. Now Trump’s won. It looks like he’s going to do what
The Chinese aren’t so different from us, he said. They he said he’s going to do. He’s going to get tough with China.”
want clean air and water, health care, education, and enough Is that the right approach?
money for a comfortable life. But their government also runs “a “You just have to stand up to China. China will continue
communist/socialist country. One party controls it. It’s secret. to go as far as it can, as long as it can, until they’re stopped,
No due process. No rule of law. No independent judiciary.” either externally or internally. It’s up to us to be smart about
He said a “Faustian bargain” exists between the government all this. Cool, calm, collected and smart. Don’t be histrionic
and the people. but be firm. Talk softly and carry a big stick.”
“That bargain is as long as the people are happy, the people

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BAUCUS ON: ObamaCare BAUCUS ON: The future
Baucus worked for years on health care reform. He took So how does the national future look?
a lot of heat for saying a single-payer option, a sort of Baucus cited a book Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote
Medicare-for-all plan, wasn’t on the table. And he worked about the fate of nations.
closely with Republicans to try to craft something accept- “Countries, civilizations rise and fall. Big strong ones.
able. He said they made a lot of progress, but as the 2008 There’s no guarantee that we’re going to be here forever. In
elections approached, “I could feel the Republicans falling fact, the evidence is kind of alarming that we might not.
off. The other side saw this as a potent political wedge. And “My glib answer is that our future is more secure if two
it worked. A lot of Democrats lost their Senate seats in that conditions occur. One is a very educated public. It takes work
election. And Republicans in the House got more seats.” to find out what the facts are. You can’t just agree on what
Once Obama was elected, the Affordable Care Act another person says is true.
passed without a single Republican vote. “The second is doing something about it. Don’t just sit
Baucus didn’t sound surprised that Obamacare is being on your tail. The assumption is that people [on the other
targeted by both Congress and the new president. side] have done their work, have gotten the facts. Then
“When you jam something down somebody’s throat, you’re going to have a discussion on facts, not on rumor and
it’s probably not going to be good policy, and its survival is innuendo.”
limited because there’s not an agreement,” he said. But isn’t the country increasingly divided, I asked, increas-
But he didn’t sound optimistic about Congress finding a ingly insulated into echo chambers where nobody has to
better solution. listen to opponents?
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “Health “Yes,” Baucus said. “I’m just giving my take. But I’ve
care premiums are going to start to go way up. learned that people are pretty smart. They may fumble it for
“They’re in a big mess now. It sounds good to a lot of a while. Somebody may do something to get them off kilter
people. Repeal. Replace. But once you get into it and start for a while. Listening. It works both ways.”
to figure out what works and doesn’t work, once you realize
how interconnected everything is, and how hard it is to put a
coalition together, I think it’s going to be a mess on the hands
of the majority party.” and bypasses and interchanges, brucellosis research, wolf
control, jails, police equipment, job training. It’s a long list.
Take Baucus almost anywhere in Montana and he can point to
something and say, “I got that for you.”
won’t question [government] legitimacy. They won’t stand up But those chairmanships also allowed him to do something
and try to change the party in power. How do you keep the with much longer reach: write the formulas that determine how
people happy? Give them jobs. Clean up the air and water. Try the federal money pie gets sliced, particularly for health care
to deal with health care. Focus on these champion industries. I and transportation.
think that’s basically the game plan.”

“W
Which, when you think about it, doesn’t sound that differ-
ent from American politics: keep the voters happy and you e’re a donee state, not a donor
keep your job. state,” Baucus said. “We have to
And Max Baucus did a lot to keep Montana voters happy. be. We’re so big and have so few
Using a combination of powerful seats—he chaired the Senate people. You’ve got to make sure
Finance Committee and the served on the Environment and that legislation is passed that
Public Works Committee—he delivered buckets of money for protects Montana.”
Montana projects. The Center for Responsive Politics tallied He points to rural health care. He authored a bill that rede-
up at least $226 million million dollars’ worth of Montana fined how Medicare and Medicaid payments go to small hospi-
“earmarks” between 2008 and 2010, the years before Congress tals, places that rely heavily on federal payments to keep the
ended that controversial process. All of them had Baucus’ name doors open.
on them. “I’ll bet you dollars to donuts we wouldn’t get our fair share
That money paid for water and sewer systems, highways of dollars if we had not put in legislation protecting our rural

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 15
Max Baucus and his wife, Melodee Hanes,
in their Gallatin Valley Home.

16
“I made a lot of people wealthy. But will those formulas stand, long term, I asked. Are they
sustainable, when the governmental mood favors a leaner
I didn’t make any money, budget?
“It’s largely on our congressional delegation,” said Baucus.
but I made a lot of people wealthy.” “You have to work at it.”

A
hospitals,” he said. “I could do that because I was chairman of
new movement is afoot to take public lands
the Finance Committee.”
When the committee was putting that bill together in the from federal control and transfer them to states
1990s, a main speaker was a doctor from rural Indiana, where or private entities. Such movements “bubble up”
the population density is 25 times Montana’s. periodically, Baucus said.
“Rural in Montana is not the same as rural in Indiana,” He recalled the Sagebrush Rebellion of the
Baucus said. So he brought Hillary Clinton to Montana. 1980s. “Everybody was hot and bothered over how important it
(Remember Hillarycare?) is to get the feds out of our lives. But we kind of like the public
“She got off the plane in Billings and said, ‘Wow. This isn’t lands. We like to hunt and fish and go outdoors and it’s kind of
rural. This is mega rural.’ And she was still in Billings.” worked out pretty well for us.”
When the rural health care bill was passed, things got Does the current movement have stronger legs?
better for small hospitals in Montana. He said that will depend on the ability of people to talk
Baucus also pointed to the federal highway bill, which he to each other. He ticked off a long list of projects that have
shaped on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and protected public lands in the Flathead, the Gallatin, the
which provided Montana with $396 million last year, producing Rocky Mountain Front and other places—all actions made
thousands of jobs. California, by comparison, got $3.5 billion. possible by on-the-ground cooperation among environmental-
That’s almost 10 times as much, but that state has almost 40 ists, snowmobilers, loggers, county commissioners and others.
times as many people and a lot more
pavement.
Those highway projects also
boosted a lot of businesses. Baucus got
the money for the interchange link-
ing Interstate 90 to Bozeman’s North
19th Street, now a bustling commercial
thoroughfare.
“I made a lot of people wealthy. I
didn’t make any money, but I made a
lot of people wealthy.”
(The Center for Responsive Politics
listed his net worth at $520,000 in
2012, shortly before he left the Senate.
He was 69 years old and ranked 81st in
the Senate in terms of personal wealth.)
“I also spent a lot of time writing
farm bills that make sense for Montana
agriculture. Disaster assistance and
lots of different provisions.”
Those formulas, along with many
other factors, produce about $1.50 in
federal spending in Montana for every
tax dollar the state sends to D.C. It
also means the state has a hospital in
almost every county seat and a usable
road to get to it.

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 17
B
“That’s worked in the past and that’s needed now today. ad information doesn’t infect only the hoi polloi.
Nothing’s easy. It’s hard work, just listening to the other side.” Baucus said he was astounded to learn—from
He said he’s proud of working with Montanans to protect the Republican Senator Steve Daines, who now holds
state’s landscapes. his seat—how many members of Congress believe
“We have a moral obligation, all of us, when we leave this the recently axed Trans Pacific Partnership would
place—and we’re not here very long, just a speck of a second, have included China.
to leave it as good as or better than we found it. We’re basically “I bet 15 to 20 percent of Congress members believe China
stewards. We’re trustees. If more of us think along those lines, is part of TPP,” Baucus said.
the more it tends to dilute political partisanship. Because we’re That trade deal would have included 12 countries around
all in it together.” the rim of the Pacific Ocean, until President Trump withdrew,
Baucus is a lifelong Democrat. Does the same feeling hold something Baucus sees as a colossal error. China was never a
true across the aisle? member of TPP and will benefit from the withdrawal, he said.
“I bet more [agree] than one thinks,” he said. “Of all the things that crossed my desk over there [in China],
“Unfortunately, our structure tends to prevent it. We spend so TPP was the most important, at least geopolitically,” he said.
much time raising money. People give me money. They give He said the deal would have boosted labor and environmental
Republicans money. Most people don’t want anything in return. standards overseas and done more to protect intellectual prop-
They want what they call good government. But good govern- erty, including internet technology. The agreement would have
ment for Democratic donors is a little bit different from good made it easier to place American military bases and obtain over-
government for Republican donors.” flight permissions. And it would have eased member countries
And the increasingly connected nature of our political into the American sphere of influence, instead of into China’s.
conversations makes it more difficult, rather than easier, for “TPP enables them to withstand Chinese pressure, political
people to communicate openly and honestly. and economic pressure,” he said. “Now we’re pulling the plug.
“Social media, internet. Everybody today has infinite access China is smiling broadly. It’s a gift. It’s a gift to China.”
to infinite information and can disseminate infinite information If the Trump administration asked his advice, Baucus said
on any subject without respect to the truth. he’d recommend revising the agreement and rebranding it.
“And we’re so busy in our lives, we don’t take time to learn “Call it the Trump Pacific Partnership. It’ll be beyootiful. It’ll
the real facts.” be yuuge.”

Baucus at work and play in Montana
At left, Max Baucus
enjoys some quality
time floating down
the Blackfoot River.

Top right: In 2010,
Baucus helped sell
ice cream at the
Big Dipper store in
Helena.

Bottom left: In May
1998, Baucus pitched
in on Beartooth
Highway work.

Bottom right: Baucus
worked at Le Petit
Outre in Missoula in
2003.

PHOTOS FROM THE MAX BAUCUS
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