Howard Baker, senator who joined Reagan White House, dies at 88

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Howard H. Baker Jr., a soft-spoken Tennessee lawyer who served three terms in the Senate and became known as “the great conciliator” in his eight years as the chamber’s Republican leader, died Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn. He was 88.

The cause was complications from a stroke, The Washington Post reported, citing longtime aide Tom Griscom.

Mr. Baker’s death was announced on the Senate floor by Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called him “one of the Senate’s most towering figures.”

Mr. Baker found his greatest fame in the summer of 1973, when he was the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee that investigated wrongdoings of the Nixon White House in the Watergate affair. In televised hearings that riveted the nation, he repeatedly asked the question on the minds of millions of Americans: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

The question, or variations on it, became a national catchphrase.

Mr. Baker’s public career included four years as ambassador to Japan, a year as White House chief of staff and two tries for the presidency. But he will be remembered as, quintessentially, a man of the Senate, ideally suited to that patience-trying institution because of his lawyer’s mind, equanimity and knack for fashioning compromises.

He was a senator from January 1967 to January 1985. He was the minority leader from 1977 to 1981, then majority leader after his party took over the Senate in the 1980 elections. As majority leader, a post he held for four years, he helped pass President Ronald Reagan’s first-term tax cuts.

Mr. Baker described his political philosophy as “moderate to moderate conservative.” As a member of the public works committee, he helped draft the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. But Mr. Baker said his biggest contribution to the environment was the creation of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a 125,000-acre national park that overlaps Tennessee and Kentucky and protects the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The park was created by Congress in 1974.

Mr. Baker and Sen. John Sherman Cooper, R-Ky., were the main Senate backers of the park.

In 1968, after previous two unsuccessful tries for the Senate, Mr. Baker cut into the traditionally Democratic vote, especially among blacks and young people, and won with 56 percent of the overall vote. He became the first Republican senator ever to win an election in Tennessee.

As a newcomer to the Senate, he pushed for loosening the shackles of the seniority system to give new legislators more influence. In so doing, he defied not only Senate tradition but also his own powerful father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican minority leader.

After Dirksen died in 1969, Mr. Baker ran to succeed him as party leader. He lost to Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who had nearly a decade’s more seniority. Undiscouraged, Mr. Baker challenged Scott two years later and lost again, albeit by a smaller margin. Scott died in 1994.

When the Senate voted unanimously to form a bipartisan committee to investigate the Watergate burglary and other wrongdoing during the presidential campaign of 1972, Scott insisted that Mr. Baker be the panel’s ranking Republican on grounds that every senator in their party had recommended him.

Mr. Baker retired from the Senate after the 1984 elections. His wife, the former Joy Dirksen, was suffering from cancer at the time, and he was believed to be wearying from the pace of the Senate.

Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born on Nov. 15, 1925, in the Cumberland Mountain town of Huntsville.

His mother, Dora, died when Howard was 8. Three years later, his father married Irene Bailey. Howard Baker Sr. was a congressman from Tennessee from 1951 until his death in January 1964, whereupon his wife was elected to fill out the balance of his term.

After service in World War II, Mr. Baker earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Tennessee. He prospered in both civil and criminal law and invested profitably in banking and real estate. During his father’s first term in Congress, he met Joy Dirksen. They married in 1951.

Joy Dirksen died on April 25, 1993. Three years later, Mr, Baker married former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Gov. Alfred E. Landon of Kansas, the 1936 Republican nominee for president.

She survives him. Mr. Baker had two children from his first marriage, Darek and Cissy Baker.

The Washington Post contributed.

First Published June 26, 2014 12:00 AM

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