David M. Shribman: Howard Baker asked the question

And he lived a giant and gentle life, breaking new ground in both Washington and Tennessee


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Howard H. Baker Jr., who died yesterday at 88, will be remembered in tributes this week for many things: The way he broke the century-long Democratic hold on Tennessee. His rise up the ladder in Washington politics. His uncommonly decent reign as Senate majority leader. His marriages — almost certainly the only man who could have claimed this — to daughters of two of the most prominent Republicans in American history. His thwarted presidential ambitions. His wise, calm stewardship of the last years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as White House chief of staff.

But Mr. Baker will be remembered for generations for one thing. He asked one of the most important questions in American history.

It was a question so basic, so innocent in its approach and assumptions, so intelligent in its formulation and yet so trenchant that it ferreted out the truth at the height of the Watergate tensions — and it was so piercing in its clarity that it became a cliche:

What did the president know and when did he know it?

What the president (Richard Nixon) knew (loads, it turned out) and when he knew it (earlier than he let on) were the issues at the center of the gravest constitutional crisis in modern American history and, by asking that question — formulated, according to folklore, by Fred Thompson, later an actor, senator and presidential candidate — Mr. Baker almost surely answered it as well.

The question in effect ended the Nixon presidency, coming as it did from a loyal Republican — he was the top GOP figure on the Senate Watergate committee — who was so highly regarded by the White House that he once was offered a Supreme Court seat by Nixon himself. The seat eventually went to William Rehnquist.

Few lawmakers of his generation or any other will receive the tributes that yesterday began to pour in for Mr. Baker.

He was serious-minded, to be sure, but he was also companionable, and not in the old-fashioned and now long departed Senate cloakroom fashion of amiable banter and empty flattery married to deep distrust and abiding deceit. Tommy Griscom, perhaps Mr. Baker’s closest confidante in the Senate and White House, recalled in a telephone conversation yesterday afternoon that his mentor never told him what to do beyond a few reliable words of guidance: Do the right thing.

Mr. Baker himself was on the right side of the political spectrum, but not too much and not so fervently that he did not accumulate abiding friendships among Democrats. And yet he was a partisan, and a partisan of a path-breaking sort. The son of a Republican congressman in Tennessee’s second district — the heart of East Tennessee, the part of the state that opposed secession in 1861 — Mr. Baker was the first Republican since Reconstruction to win popular election in a statewide race.

His election to the Senate ended statewide domination of a particularly and peculiarly powerful strain of Democratic politician — Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, but also 20th century giants such as Cordell Hull (later secretary of state), Estes Kefauver (a celebrated Senate investigator known for his conquest of John F. Kennedy for the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nomination) and Albert Gore Sr. (senator and father of a vice president). The latter two, along with Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, were the only Democrats from Confederate states who did not sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration.

Mr. Baker’s triumph spawned a new breed of Tennessee Republicans — among their number is Lamar Alexander, a former governor, education secretary, university president and sitting senator — and transformed Tennessee into a two-party state.

Mr. Baker was preparing for a second presidential campaign in 1988 — his first one, in 1980, was snuffed out by George H.W. Bush in Iowa and Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire — but his plans were derailed when Reagan asked him to succeed the embattled Donald Regan as White House chief of staff. He served for 16 difficult months while the Reagan administration struggled with the Iran-Contra scandal.

Mr. Baker spawned unusual loyalty among his colleagues, aides and associates. “There was a gentleness to him that was remarkable for people who operated at his level,” remembered Thomas D. Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who met Mr. Baker while the senator stumped in 1980 for Senate candidate Warren B. Rudman, whose victory in that race helped provide the GOP majority that thrust Mr. Baker into the leadership of the Senate in 1981. “There was a twinkle in his eyes always.”

Those eyes could, however, flash with anger. One afternoon, Mr. Baker found himself delaying the conclusion of a close Senate roll call while Republican aides searched for a GOP lawmaker whose vote Mr. Baker needed. In a stage whisper that Mr. Baker intended for the denizens of the press gallery to hear with unmistakable clarity, the Senate majority leader told the missing lawmaker — who returned to the chamber in a tornado of urgency and discomfort — that he didn’t mind if his colleague conducted an extramarital affair but he did mind if he romped with his mistress on Mr. Baker’s time. He did not, however, phrase his remarks with the care applied to crafting the previous sentence.

Mr. Griscom was presiding over a meeting of the Chattanooga Rotary Club Thursday when he received a message from Cissy Baker, the senator’s daughter, of his mentor’s demise. “He was like a second father to me,” Mr. Griscom said. “The Howard Baker you saw in public was the Howard Baker we all saw in private.”

Mr. Baker’s first wife was the daughter of Sen. Everett Dirksen, the celebrated Republican senator from Illinois. After Joy Baker died of cancer, Mr. Baker married another former GOP senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, the daughter of Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee. Later, George W. Bush appointed Mr. Baker ambassador to Japan.

No one who was in the Senate gallery when Mr. Baker announced his retirement from the chamber in 1984 will forget his personal reminiscence. He stood at his lectern in the front row of the chamber, his colleagues standing around him, a mist of poignancy in the air, and he recalled his years in Washington. It was a speech that was, in turn, sorrowful and sentimental. The Senate majority leader recalled that he had come to the chamber young, idealistic and rich. Then he departed, as none of those things.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890).


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