Bob Baker: ‘The Unlikely Diplomat’

By Sarah Stockman
Staff Writer

Robert “Bob” Baker moved to Pacific Palisades 17 years ago after retiring from the United States diplomatic service.

In August, he self-published a book titled “The Unlikely Diplomat: Traveler Tales,” about his 31 years of service in Europe, Africa and Australia.

Baker was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. “I was born in 1935 to poor, first-generation Americans,” he said.“ My grandparents were uneducated immigrants from England, Germany and Poland.”

Baker’s father only attended school through the fourth grade, but Baker aspired to do more. In 1953 he enrolled at Loyola College, now Loyola University, and worked at a tin factory and as a copy boy for the Baltimore Sun to pay his $600-a-year tuition.

Bob Baker

While at Loyola, Baker was president of the international studies club under Father Gibbons, who recommended he apply to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

After graduating in 1957, Baker wanted to study European affairs at SAIS.

“When I applied, the African studies department lacked students,” he said. “The admitting officer told me I could only attend if I agreed to become an African area specialist.”

After two years, Baker got a job at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) reporting on communist propaganda in East Africa. Every day he analyzed more than 50 cables and copies of all newspapers in the region and noted any worrying articles or reports.

Five years later, Baker took the Foreign Service exam and passed. At the end of the year-long class, he said, “We got to have coffee with the Secretary of State [Dean Rusk] in his office.”

Preparing for his first assignment, Baker was asked to name three preferred locations. He chose London, Paris and Rome. Instead, he was sent to Kampala, Uganda, in 1967.

Baker became a friend of the king of the Tooro tribe, one of the five kingdoms of Uganda. He’d gotten into the king’s good graces when he helped the king’s cousin in Washington, D.C.

The king invited Baker to his court. “He and I were seated in the only two chairs,” Baker said. “Even my wife had to sit on the floor.”

In 1970, Baker finally got his chance to go to London, where he served as assistant cultural attaché until 1974. His job was to educate British citizens aged 30 or younger about America.

During that time, the Watergate scandal surfaced. “The British thought President Nixon was evil and crazy,” Baker said. But when he asked his superiors what he should do to allay fears, they didn’t have an answer. “The bureaucrats who ran the government didn’t know what to say or do.”

Baker took matters in his own hands. “I held an historical seminar,” he said. “I focused on the division of power in our government.”

By explaining how checks and balances and the U.S. Constitution worked, Baker was able to calm the British. “The tone of the editorial comment changed,” he said. “They began to say, maybe things can be changed.”

After London, Baker was scheduled to go Cambodia with his wife and three little kids. However, at the time, Cambodia and Vietnam were at war and so Baker asked not to be sent there.

Instead, in 1975, he was sent to Bonn, Germany, which was the capital at the time. “My job was . . . arranging cultural centers throughout Germany,” said Baker, who worked there five years, first as the director of field programs and then as a cultural attaché in Berlin.

Next, he worked as special assistant to the director of Voice of America, and then spent a year working as a policy officer in Africa.

In 1991, Baker settled into his last diplomatic job as the Director of the Regional Programs Office in Vienna. The Soviet Union had just dissolved, so it was Baker’s job to train staff for the new embassies opening in the former Soviet Bloc nations.“We set up new posts in 20 countries,” he said.

The Unlikely Diplomat cover

While in Vienna, he distributed copies of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution to all the new outposts, and also printed ballots for the first democratic election in Albania.

Baker wanted to continue to serve, but was forced to retired due to a medical issue. “I left Vienna about 1992 because undiagnosed sleep apnea made me unable to do my job properly. Back in D.C., the state doctor and two local doctors also failed to diagnose it, because back then it wasn’t a clearly recognized problem.”

Baker officially resigned in 1994 and moved to Los Angeles to be with his son Toby, an aspiring actor. He has two other children—Sasha, a teacher, and Polly, a yoga instructor—but is no longer married.

“I miss being able to work, but the sleep apnea still is with me,” said Baker, who is a member of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society and the Temescal Canyon Association. He volunteered with Theatre Palisades for a number of years and periodically helped to clean Founders Island on Haverford.

Baker started writing his book 13 years ago. “I wouldn’t have published it, but a friend said it was good.”

He chose the title “The Unlikely Diplomat” because of his background.“I never met anyone with my background until the State Department, in about 1980, let some minorities and women join the Foreign Service,” he said.

“The Unlikely Diplomat” is sold on paperback ($20) and Kindle ($9.99).

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