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Howard Baker Was the Kind of Reasonable Republican That Hardly Exists Anymore

The Senate majority leader showed that decency, patriotism, and hardball politics can coexist

Brian Alpert/Hulton Archive/Getty

“What did the president know and when did he know it?” That phrase, uttered by Republican Senator Howard Baker during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings on June 29, 1973, will forever be associated with Baker, who died Thursday at 88 in Tennessee. While Baker, the vice chair of the committee, was attempting dutifully to protect the reputation of his close friend President Richard Nixon, the phrase, and his impeccably fair conduct on the committee, underscored the fact that the partisan divisions on the committee and in the country did not dominate the proceedings. Its balance and fairness, due in no small part to Baker, made what followed—impeachment proceedings in the House, and the ultimate resignation of the president, a time of extraordinary tension in the country—an episode that ended with far more national comity and unity than polarization and division.

Baker’s long career in politics and government, and his time since leaving public service, were testament to his credo, which he described to The Ripon Forum in 2007: "I’m a life-long and proud Republican.  Unlike some, however, I don’t believe loyalty to party precludes common sense decision and policymaking.  Some of our Nation’s greatest triumphs have come when political leaders have not allowed partisan differences to deter their efforts to find solutions that are in the Nation’s best interest."

Beyond the Watergate hearings, perhaps the best example of that credo at work was Baker’s role in the passage of the Panama Canal Treaty. As Adam Clymer details in his book, Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch, the 1978 debate over the treaty, bitter and contentious, mobilized the right in a fashion that presaged its rise as a potent grassroots force, and helped propel Ronald Reagan, the most visible opponent of the treaty, to the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. For Howard Baker, the senate minority leader and presidential aspirant, the treaty, which had initially been negotiated in the Ford Administration and was signed by President Jimmy Carter, posed a huge political problem. Baker’s initial reaction to the treaty was “Why now, and why me?”

But Baker believed passage of the treaty was in the national interest—and failure to pass it would be detrimental to that interest. So he worked closely with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, making some changes in language along the way, and helped steer the Panama Canal Treaty to ratification with one vote more than needed to make the two-thirds threshold. Sixteen Republicans joined with 52 Democrats. His visible role damaged Baker significantly in presidential nominating politics. Many years later, Byrd said, “Courage? That’s Howard Baker and the Panama Canal.”

Baker came from a political family and married into one as well. His father served in the House of Representatives from Tennessee, and his first wife, Joy, was the daughter of Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, who himself has been spotlighted much recently for his pivotal role in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has its 50th anniversary next week. After an unsuccessful run in 1964 for a Senate seat from Tennessee to fill the vacancy caused by Estes Kefauver's death, Baker ran again two years later and won, becoming the first Republican popularly elected to the Senate from his state.

Even in his first term, at a time when Senate norms said that freshmen should be seen and not heard, Baker played a strong legislative role, including on the Clean Air Act, the beginning of a sustained interest and involvement in environmental issues that today would be anathema in the Republican Party, but that was much more common back then. Baker’s skill at finding bipartisan majorities via compromise—giving him the moniker of “The Great Conciliator,” made him a major figure in the Senate, but his early efforts to become his party’s leader were rebuffed as his colleagues twice chose moderate Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania over Baker. But when Scott left the Senate in 1977, Baker was elected Republican Leader and served in that post, in minority and majority, until he left the Senate in 1985. In 1987, as he contemplated another run for the White House, Reagan asked him to become his chief of staff during turbulent times in the White House.

In many ways, Baker was an odd choice for that post. Beyond opposing Reagan on the Panama Canal Treaty, Baker had also characterized the centerpiece of President Reagan’s first-term economic plan, deep tax cuts and budget cuts, as “a riverboat gamble,” the second phrase for which he will always be known. And Baker had never served in an administrative or managerial position. But after Donald Regan's disastrous, imperious tenure in the post, Baker’s political skills, modest demeanor, and even temperament fit well with the demands of a second-term president, and Baker skillfully navigated through difficult times, including the Iran–Contra affair.  The team he brought around him in the White House and administration, including Ken Duberstein as his deputy chief of staff (who succeeded Baker as chief of staff for the final stage of Reagan’s second term) kept the presidency from foundering and enabled Reagan to finish more strongly than many had predicted. Baker’s public service had one more chapter, as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, during the first term of President George W. Bush, where he was met with great respect and affection.

Baker’s first wife, Joy, died of cancer in 1993. Three years later, he married a former colleague, Nancy Kassebaum, shortly before she retired from her own stellar career in the Senate. By their contemporary standards and by voting records, both Baker and Kassebaum would have been considered right of center, with Baker slightly to the right of Kassebaum. Of course, by today’s standards they would be viewed as close to socialists in the GOP. Baker became party leader because he faithfully worked to implement his party’s program, especially when it held the White House; after the “riverboat gamble” comment, Baker skillfully engineered Senate passage of the Reagan tax cuts. But far more important than ideology, Baker stood out for his decency and his desire to solve problems, and, as Robert Byrd said, for his courage in working to solve those problems in ways that would thwart his own ambition and cause ripples within his party.

I had the privilege of knowing Baker (and Kassebaum) during the Senate years and after. He was a model of public service in the nation’s interest, a model of how decency, patriotism, canny political skills and at times hardball politics, can coexist. He will be missed—even more as we see fewer and fewer examples like his on the national stage, especially in his life-long party.