The United States has lost the man who dared to ask “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” at the Watergate hearings with Howard Baker passing at the age of 88.
He was, of course, much more than that. He was a Senator from Tennessee (the first Republican popularly elected to the Senate from that state, earning 35% of the black vote in 1966), Senate Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader, White House Chief of Staff (stepping in to help cleaning up the Iran-Contra mess late in the Reagan years), as well as Ambassador to Japan.
Even so, his name is forever linked to the downfall of the Nixon Presidency.
Baker initially believed in Nixon’s innocence, but changed his mind as evidence accumulated of White House involvement in the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
The Watergate hearings, televised live, wound up catapulting Baker to national attention, laying the groundwork for his presidential bid in 1980. But his role also drew the distrust of right-wing Republicans, who would never forgive him for contributing to the pressure that forced Nixon’s resignation and later lobbied against his efforts to win the vice presidential spot on the Republican ticket in 1976 and 1980.
Even though he did face retribution from his own for unbiasedly seeking the truth about the Nixon White House, it should be noted that his Senate career lasted another full decade, including his stints as Minority (1977-81) and Majority (1981-85) Leader. It is hard to imagine today’s GOP voters tolerating this kind of apostasy beyond the next primary or modern Republicans senators making such a man their leader.
It wasn’t just his attitude toward Watergate that raised the ire of the right-wing of his party:
Baker was described as a liberal on environmental issues (he helped draft anti-strip-mining legislation), a moderate on civil rights (he backed landmark voting rights legislation but opposed busing to achieve racial balance in schools, calling it “a grievous piece of mischief”) and a hawk on foreign policy (he voted against SALT II, an arms-reduction treaty with the Soviets but he supported the Panama Canal treaty that ceded control of the waterway to Panama).
For the most part, he was a compromiser and pragmatist who voted for the Equal Rights Amendment, which gave states the option to ratify a constitutional amendment conferring equal rights on women, but against extension of the ratification deadline. James A. Baker III, Reagan’s first chief of staff and later Treasury secretary who was himself a deft manipulator of political strings, once called him “the quintessential mediator, negotiator and moderator.”
Our government could certainly use a good few more compromisers and pragmatists today.
Quotes are from The Los Angeles Times obituary here, see also The Tennessean obituary here.