Howard Baker, 1925-2014

Senator Howard Baker died Thursday, and the whole nation has a right to mourn his loss. In case we forget what sort of people we ought to elect to solve our problems, he left us a fine example of the ideal.

You might have to be a certain age to remember when the Republican Party represented a breath of fresh air, especially in Tennessee. For generations, the phrase “Southern Republican” was an oxymoron, an impossible contradiction in terms. That other party had dominated Tennessee politics for a century, and despite a few bright spots the Democratic Party could still seem like a big, dark, twisty thing, mired in the resentments of desegregation and the memories of machine politics. During Reconstruction, one Republican, Parson W.G. Brownlow of Knoxville, had been a Republican senator in the days when senators were selected by the state legislature, but since the beginning of the practice to elect senators by popular vote, Tennessee had put only Democrats in the office.

Originally from one of the South’s most traditionally Republican counties, remote, hilly Scott County, Howard Baker was, in 1966, a Navy veteran of World War II and a graduate of the UT School of Law. He was also the son of the Second District’s recently deceased U.S. representative, so he had some name recognition, at least in this part of the state.

He ran for U.S. Senate, and won, becoming Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican senator. It was the beginning a distinguished 18-year career in the nation’s most powerful legislative body. From his first term, he made a difference, helping draft major air- and water-pollution control legislation, as well as leading the creation of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, not far from his Scott County home; he later remarked that it may be remembered as his chief legacy.

Baker was an independent thinker on Capitol Hill, and though he was a well-known ally of President Nixon–and was even considered as a potential running mate in 1968–he may forever be remembered for asking witnesses in the Senate Watergate hearings a key question, on live television–and in those days, more people, even schoolchildren, were watching the hearings than have been watching the World Cup this week–”What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Watergate didn’t yield many national heroes, but Baker was one. His colleagues elected him to lead the Republican minority in the Senate in 1977, a role he played for the next eight years, eventually as majority leader, and arguably the nation’s most powerful legislator. Some called him “The Great Conciliator” for his soft-spoken, even-tempered aptitude at making compromises two or more sides could feel good about. He carried several conservative standards, but also helped shepherd Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal treaty, insisting it wasn’t America’s role to colonize. He didn’t have a lot of use for rhetoric or harsh denunciation. But to be fair to his erstwhile imitators and latter-day peers, if he does have any, it was probably easier to be a moderate Republican in the 1970s than it is today.

With encouragement, he ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1980, but didn’t get very far; some said it was because he was a short guy who wore glasses; others say it was because he wouldn’t leave his responsibilities in Washington long enough to campaign.

He didn’t run for a fourth term in the Senate, and might have seemed to be gracefully retiring, at 60, to help his seriously ill wife, Joy, and to spend some time with his favorite hobby; he was an accomplished photographer. But President Ronald Reagan, whose administration seemed to be running into strange waters with Iran-Contra, hired him to be chief of staff. Across the political spectrum, the nation heaved a sigh of relief.

At about 75, during the first four years of George W. Bush’s administration, he became U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Baker always returned to East Tennessee, especially his native Huntsville. He remained a senior counsel for the venerable law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, which has a big office in Knoxville.

In 2003, he was central to the founding of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. He kept an office on the third floor of the domed building completed at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Melrose Place in 2008, and for the first few years used that office regularly, once a month or so. He remained an active participant in planning Baker Center events, especially in selecting the Center’s especially distinguished lineup of speakers.

One of his last public appearances in Knoxville was last November, when he greeted his friend Tom Brokaw, the author and retired newsman who was the Baker Center speaker of the day. Senator Baker was there in a wheelchair, with his second wife, Nancy (herself a former three-term senator from Kansas, and the daughter of 1936 Republican nominee Alf Landon). The crowd packing the Cox Auditorium cheered Baker and sang him Happy Birthday; he turned 88 that week.

Early this month, he returned to attend the Baker Center’s semi-regular board meeting, and though wheelchair bound, was reportedly hearty and in good spirits. He’ll return one more time, when his casket will lie in state in the Baker Center’s rotunda on Monday.

There are several buildings named for Howard Baker, and doubtless will be more. But the greatest memorial America could offer Howard Baker, and the one he would appreciate most, would be to try, just for a year, a month, or however long you can stand it, to be civil. Listen to the other guy, try to understand his point of view. Perspective is what makes a great photographer, and a great statesman.