Obituary: Howard H. Baker Jr. / ‘Great conciliator’ of Senate, linked to Watergate panel

Nov. 15, 1925 - June 26, 2014


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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.

United States - North America - United States government - Central America - Latin America and Caribbean - United States Congress - District of Columbia - U.S. Republican Party - United States Senate - Tennessee - Richard Nixon - Ronald Reagan - Supreme Court of the United States - Mitch McConnell - George H. Bush - Maryland - Anthony Kennedy - Panama - George J. Mitchell - Cumberland - Bob Dole - Gerald Ford - Nancy Reagan - Howard Baker - Tom Daschle

The Wash­ing­ton Post con­trib­uted.


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