Howard Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, was a former Senate majority leader and chief of staff to President Reagan. Both his father and stepmother served in Congress; one of the Senate’s office buildings is named for Baker’s father-in-law, Everett Dirksen.
When he retired, Baker took up residence as one of the capital’s most respected and well-liked wise men. Even in a time when Washington and its insiders are widely reviled, Howard Baker will be remembered as a Washington insider who was widely revered.
That may be because Baker was not regarded as a partisan — even when he held some of the most political jobs in town. His most famous moments came as the senior Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee in the summer of 1973, when he framed the essential question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
That lawyerly formulation was critical to the process that led to Republican President Richard Nixon’s resignation a year later.
Baker came to politics naturally, a product of a political family in East Tennessee. He could have inherited the Knoxville-based seat in Congress, representing a historically Republican part of the state, but chose at 38 to run for the Senate instead in 1964. He lost in that Democratic year but won two years later, becoming the first Republican from Tennessee in the Senate since Reconstruction.
Once in the Senate he was immediately a candidate for leadership, seeking to succeed Dirksen, his father-in-law, as GOP leader. After two false starts, he won the post late in 1976, becoming the first Republican Senate leader from the South.
In that role, he helped President Jimmy Carter win the supermajority needed to approve the Panama Canal Treaty, transferring the canal to Panama. That cost him the support of many conservatives and hobbled his bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 1980.
Baker dropped out relatively early in that sweepstakes, but the man who won the presidency that year, Ronald Reagan, carried into office a new Republican majority in the Senate — the first since the mid-1950s. Suddenly, Baker found himself the majority leader, charged with enacting the new president’s ambitious new program.
Baker may never have been a true Reaganite, but he proved adept at working with the president’s team and reaching agreements with the House — which despite its nominal Democratic majority was actually dominated by a bipartisan, conservative coalition with its center of gravity in the South.
Baker understood that coalition instinctively, having dealt with deeply traditional Southern Democrats throughout his life. Beyond that, he had an excellent relationship with Speaker Tip O’Neill, whom he personally liked. Most important, Baker could find the fulcrum on which to turn the Senate, working with committee chairs and senior members of both parties.
In 1983, journalist Michael Barone would write that Baker had “become the balance wheel of government” in Washington.
Yet Baker chose to end his Senate career after three terms, retiring in 1984 while still in his late 50s. It was generally assumed he would run for president whenever Reagan retired. Instead, Baker went to work for Reagan in February 1987, at a time when the White House was in serious trouble.
The Senate majority won in 1980 had been lost in 1986, even before the contours of the Iran-Contra scandal were known. When the country learned the Reagan administration had been selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and using the profits from the sale to aid rebels in Nicaragua in defiance of Congress, Chief of Staff Donald Regan stepped down and Baker stepped in.
Baker helped his president right his ship, survive the protracted congressional investigation and change the subject with a breakthrough on arms control with the Soviet Union (as it was then still known). Reagan left office on a high note, popular with the public and much of the political class as well.
Baker’s later years were less momentous. His name was mentioned for president in 1988 and even in 1996, but he did not run again. He took care of his first wife, and after she died he married a former Senate colleague, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.
He also practiced law and served on many boards and commissions. With three other former leaders of the Senate majority he formed the Bipartisan Policy Center, devoted to finding the kinds of compromises he had often had forged in his own career.
One of his co-founding partners in that venture, former Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, had this salute earlier today. “Howard Baker’s distinguished career as senator and statesman is a product of his unique capacity to win the confidence and trust of even those with whom he fundamentally disagreed.”
That capacity has always been a special gift in politics, and few would disagree it is rarer yet today than it was in Baker’s prime.