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Former Senator Howard Baker dies at 88

Douglas Caddy

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Howard H. Baker Jr., ‘Great Conciliator’ of Senate, Dies at 88


The New York Times

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 on Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn. He was 88.

His death was announced on the Senate floor by the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called him “one of the Senate’s most towering figures.” Further details were not immediately available.

Mr. Baker found his greatest fame in the summer of 1973, when he was the ranking Republican on the special Senate committee that investigated wrongdoing 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’s like the Tennessee River,” his stepmother, Irene Bailey Baker, once said. “He flows right down the middle.”

Mr. Baker 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 Senator John Sherman Cooper, Republican of Kentucky, were the main Senate backers of the park. “I’ll be remembered longer for Big South Fork than anything else,” Mr. Baker told a television interviewer late in his life.

Mr. Baker opposed school busing for integration as “a grievous piece of mischief,” yet he supported fair-housing and voting-rights legislation. He championed fiscal conservatism but favored big Pentagon budgets.

Friendly and unfailingly courteous, Mr. Baker was popular with lawmakers in both parties. He was a negotiator with seemingly bottomless energy and patience, and he was not above herding feuding partisans into a room and keeping them there until they came to an agreement, often one that he had helped write.

Mr. Baker’s first Senate campaign ended in defeat. In 1964, he ran to fill the unexpired term of Senator Estes Kefauver, who had died the previous summer. He tried to distance himself from the presidential campaign of Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, yet he himself ran on stances more conservative than those he would embrace later — promising to fight federal interference in local education and civil rights issues, for instance.

“I was a young man in his first race, which was a tumultuous campaign,” he said later in explaining his platform.

Mr. Baker lost to the more liberal Ross Bass, but he attracted more votes than any previous Tennessee Republican in a statewide election. Two years later, he ran for the Senate again, against Gov. Frank G. Clement, who had beaten Mr. Bass in the Democratic primary. This time, he took more moderate stances, supporting fair-housing laws, for example.

Mr. Baker was endorsed by some newspapers that Mr. Clement had alienated. And Richard M. Nixon, who was trying to make friends as he positioned himself to run for president in 1968, campaigned across Tennessee on Mr. Baker’s behalf.

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 to win a Senate 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, Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican minority leader.

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

When the Senate voted unanimously to form a bipartisan committee to investigate the Watergate burglary and other wrongdoing during the presidential campaign of 1972, Mr. Scott insisted that Mr. Baker be the panel’s ranking Republican on the grounds that every senator in their party had recommended him. There was also talk that Mr. Scott was happy to put Mr. Baker in a spot that was potentially embarrassing, given his past friendship with Mr. Nixon, as punishment for having challenged him.

In any event, Mr. Baker’s performance on the Watergate committee made him a figure of national prominence, as his calm, lawyerly manner complemented the folksiness of the committee chairman, Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., Democrat of North Carolina.

Before the 1976 election, Mr. Baker hoped that President Gerald R. Ford would pick him for his running mate. Instead, Mr. Ford selected Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, a far more partisan and sharp-tongued campaigner. (Unlike Mr. Dole, Mr. Baker never seemed consumed by politics. He liked tennis and golf and was an avid photographer.)

In 1980, Mr. Baker made a brief run for the presidency, finishing third in the New Hampshire primary, behind Mr. Reagan and George Bush. When it became clear that Mr. Reagan would win the nomination, Mr. Baker let it be known that he would like to be the vice-presidential candidate.

But Republican conservatives blocked him. The same qualities that had made him such an effective legislator — the willingness to break with party ideology and work with the opposition — made him unpopular with the party’s ascendant right wing. Mr. Baker had supported civil rights legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment and the treaty ceding the Panama Canal to Panama, much to the annoyance of conservatives.

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