Howard Baker: US Senate leader and Chief of Staff whose moderate brand of Republicanism is today a vanishing force

 

"What did the president know and when did he know it?" Those words – among the most famous lines in all American politics, encapsulating the Watergate scandal – were delivered by Howard Baker, then Senator from Tennessee and throughout his career the standard-bearer of a moderate Republicanism that today is all but extinct.

The very question, which he asked repeatedly as the senior Republican on the Senate Watergate committee headed by North Carolina's Sam Ervin, summed Baker up. Initially he could not believe that Richard Nixon was involved in the criminal shenanigans of his staff. But a parade of witnesses before the committee in 1973 and 1974 gradually convinced Baker otherwise. He was a party loyalist; but for him, partisanship was nothing when compared to the national interest.

His powerful performance during the televised Watergate hearings turned Baker into a national political figure. In fact he might not have been there at all had he accepted an offer from Nixon in 1971 for one of two vacant seats on the Supreme Court. But he dithered, and the president lost patience, nominating William Rehnquist, later chief Justice under presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W Bush.

The Court's loss was the Senate's gain. Baker steadily rose through the ranks, to minority leader during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and then majority leader when the Republicans recaptured control of the Senate in the watershed 1980 elections that swept Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Politics and public service were in Howard Baker's blood: his grandfather was a judge, his father a seven-term Congressman for an eastern district in Tennessee – and his marriages only reinforced that gene. The first, lasting until her death, was to Joy Dirksen, daughter of Everett Dirksen, a legendary Republican grandee in the Senate of the 1960s. His second, in 1996, was to Nancy Kassenbaum, daughter of Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee against Franklin Roosevelt, and herself a Republican senator.

A first Senate run in Tennessee was unsuccessful. The second time around, in 1966, Baker fared better and became the first Republican to win a state-wide popular election since the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War. He did so thanks to moderate policies that attracted blacks and many traditional Democratic voters. He carried that approach to the national stage in Washington.

Baker was the quintessential mediator, courtly in manner and ever civil, a backstage dealmaker who liked to describe the Senate cloakroom, the private rooms next to the chamber where members of both parties would congregate, as his office. His methods earned him the nickname of "The Great Conciliator". But his gift for compromise would doom his pursuit of national office.

In 1976 Gerald Ford, under pressure from conservatives, passed Baker over as his running mate in favour of the more partisan and sharp-tongued Bob Dole. Four years later he sought the White House himself, but by then the party's right wing was carrying all before it and Baker ended his campaign after defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. As Senate majority leader he could not have been a more loyal Reagan lieutenant, helping push through the president's sweeping first-term tax cuts. But in 1984 he announced his retirement, ostensibly to spend more time with his cancer-stricken wife but also, many suspected, to prepare another Presidential bid in 1988.

Alas, another White House scandal upset those plans. In 1987 Reagan summoned him back to the White House as Chief of Staff to steady an administration reeling from the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran and the proceeds used to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, in defiance of every Congressional rule. Having assured himself that this time the president truly did know nothing of what his underlings were up to, Baker accepted the offer. And the ship was quickly steadied. Reagan's approval ratings climbed steadily through his remaining two years in the White House, and Baker's reputation as the supreme Washington operator was sealed.

In July 1988, the job done, Baker left the White House. But his public service was not over. In 2001 he accepted President George W Bush's offer to become the US Ambassador to Japan, where he served for four years. In 2007 he and three other former Senate leaders founded the Bipartisan Policy Center, promoting cross-party solutions to the country's problems. But the venture sank virtually without trace. American politics had changed utterly since Baker's heyday – and indubitably for the worse.

Howard Henry Baker, politician: born Huntsville, Tennessee 15 November 1925; US Senator, Tennessee 1967-1985; Republican majority leader 1981-1985, White House chief of staff 1987-1988, US Ambassador to Japan 2001-2005, married firstly Joy Dirksen (deceased; two children), secondly Nancy Kassebaum; died Huntsville 26 June 2014.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
News
Robyn Lawley
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
News
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
Voices
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

All Primary NQT's

£100 - £120 per day + per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Description Calling a...

Supply Teachers Needed in Thetford

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star