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Howard Baker, Known as ‘Great Conciliator,’ Dies at 88

Baker, fourth from left, at the Watergate hearings. (Roll Call File Photo)
Baker, fourth from left, at the Watergate hearings. (Roll Call File Photo)

Updated, 6:25 p.m. | Former Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. of Tennessee, known for asking during the  Watergate hearings “What did the president know and when did he know it,” died Thursday from complications of a stroke he suffered on Saturday.

Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, the law firm where he had worked since finishing his term Ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush in 2005, announced the news. Baker’s grandfather had founded the firm and he had previously practiced law there with his father, the late Rep. Howard H. Baker.

Baker, who was 88 years old, had an illustrious political career beginning with being the first elected Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. He served in the Senate from 1967 through early 1985. During that time, he met his first wife, whose father was Everett Dirksen, a brash Republican from Illinois who was the locus of the party at the height of his influence.  

While in the Senate, Baker also served as minority leader between 1977 and 1981 then as majority leader between 1981and 1985.  

He was remembered fondly by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of the five senators still in office who overlapped with Baker’s tenure in office.  

“He was a particularly good mentor of mine,” said Hatch said.  

“Howard was a straight shooter, absolutely honest, very, very smart, respected by both Democrats and Republicans, and by every administration he worked with because he is a man of his word,” Hatch continued. “I can’t give a higher accolade to anybody than what I just gave to him, in my eyes, because that meant so much to me to be around people like that.”  

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who served briefly with Baker, also lamented his passing.  

“Howard Baker was a true statesman, as well as an outstanding leader in the United State Senate and my personal friend,” Cochran said in a release. “I offer my sincerest condolences to his family.”  

The other three who overlapped with Baker are Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.  

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who worked for Baker, praised his bold attitude.  

“I was wet behind the ears, just out of law school, and I’d volunteered for his campaign for the Senate in 1966, and he boldly announced that he would win by 100,000 votes a week before the election, and I was embarrassed because it was such an outlandish prediction,” Alexander said. “And a week later, it turned out to be true.”  

Alexander recalled that Baker’s maiden speech on the floor of the Senate ran about an hour, prompting Dirksen to tell him “Howard, perhaps you should occasionally experience the luxury of an unexpressed thought.”  

Alexander also said Baker was a key to the development of a modern Republican party in Tennessee.  

He gained national recognition in 1973 as a member of the special committee empaneled by the Senate to investigate Watergate. Baker served as ranking member of the committee, which produced a seven-volume report after holding a raft of hearings when Baker asked the pivotal question: “What did the president know and when did he now it.” Baker’s chief minority counsel for the panel was future Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., who also went on to fame as an actor.  

Three years later, he was keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention and was a 1980 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He withdrew from the primary in March after losing the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush and the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan.  

Sen. Tom Harkin, R-Iowa, who didn’t serve with Baker, said that he remembers riding on a train from Iowa to the first Farm Aid with Baker. Harkin said there was speculation that Baker may run for president.  

“I thought it was very unusual, everyone else would be politicking, he had a camera and all he did was take pictures. He took a great picture with me and Neil Young and Willie Nelson … and gave it to me.”  

He was an accomplished photographer and received The American Society of Photographers’ International Award in 1993 and was elected into the Photo Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame in 1994.  

Baker decided not to seek reelection in 1984 and was ultimately tapped by President Ronald Reagan to be his chief of staff. He served in that post from February 1987 to July 1988.  

Baker was also well versed in foreign policy, serving as a delegate to the United Nations in 1976 and on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Board from 1985 to 1987 and from 1988 to 1990. He was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs.  

Among his many awards are the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Performed by an Elected or Appointed Official, which he received in 1982.  

He was appointed Ambassador to Japan by George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2005.  

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a statement he was “good friends” with Baker after serving with him in the Senate for many years, calling him “one of the best” majority leaders with whom he’s worked.  

“He was honorable, he was tough, and he was fair. He possessed tremendous wisdom and integrity, and he had an ability to put himself in the other person’s shoes so he could work out an honorable compromise. I watched Howard do it time and time again,” Biden said, citing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Panama Canal Treaty.  

Biden continued, “President Harry Truman once said, ‘It’s understanding that gives us the ability to have peace. When you understand the other fellow’s viewpoint, and he understands ours, then you can sit down and you can work out your differences.’ That’s who Howard Baker was. The understandings he reached at every stage of his career have made our country and our world a better place. He was a good man.”  

President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday that Baker was “many things” over his career.  

“Yet, it was his ability to broker compromise and his unofficial role as the ‘Great Conciliator’ that won him admirers across party lines, over multiple generations, and beyond the state he called home,” Obama said.  

After his first wife, Joy Dirksen, passed away from cancer, Baker married former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., in 1996.  

He is survived by Kassebaum, his son Darek, his daughter Cynthia and four grandsons.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.

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