'I Love Walking Into A Lion's Den': Max Baucus Reflecting On His Tenure Of Public Service

Sep 27, 2017

Former U.S.Ambassador to China and former U.S. Senator Max Baucus, left, talking about his years of public service with Nicol Rae, Dean of the College of Letters and Science at Montana State University. Baucus was invited by the Burton K. Wheeler Center.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

Former U.S. Ambassador to China and Montana Senator Max Baucus says there’s insufficient critical thinking today.  He says for many, it’s easier to watch or read the news they agree with.  Baucus says as Senator he strove to meet with those who didn’t always agree with him. 

“I love walking into a lion’s den. It’s a challenge,” Baucus says. “You learn something. And basically, they might learn something too.”

Baucus was invited by the Burton K. Wheeler Center on September 7, 2017 to reflect on his decades of public service. One of the stories he told was what happened after he voted for two gun bills. The Brady Bill established background checks for gun purchases; the other was a temporary ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips.

The Democrat recalls an incident in Missoula during one of his so-called “work days” where he shadowed Montanans on their job. That day he was delivering kegs of beer and containers of pop when ran into a constituent.

“This big guy he says, ‘You going to come tonight and tell us why you made them gun votes? We’re the Association to Protect the 2nd Amendment.’ What time? ‘6:30.’ I already had an appointment then but I wanted to go,” he says.

Although his staff did not want him to go to that meeting, Baucus made up his mind and deliberately showing up for their gathering 40 minutes late.

“I said let me speak just 5 minutes. Uninterrupted. Just let me speak 5 minutes and then let ‘er rip,” he says. “They let me speak 5 minutes. Well sure enough all hell broke loose.”

He says he was called un-Senator and told he violated the Constitution.  Baucus says, the real discussion started when he addressed one member of the gathering, “Sir, I hear you. That’s a position you hold fervently. It’s heartfelt. Sincerely felt. I respect that. But I urge you to listen to what I just said and give some thought to what I just said. You could feel the tension in the room fall.”

He liked the remaining hour-and-a-half to a political science seminar. Baucus remembers at the end they gave him a reluctant standing ovation.

“I kept asking myself, what happened here? I think part of it is respect.”

Those gun control votes happened in 1993 and 1994.  After grueling campaigns, Baucus was re-elected. In all the Democrat served 6 terms, making him Montana’s longest serving U.S. Senator to date. He stepped down after he was nominated by then-President Barack Obama to be U.S. Ambassador to China, a post he held from 2014 until January 2017.