Knoxville News Sentinel: Op-ed by Sen. Lamar Alexander: Baker exemplified leadership, courage

July 1, 2014 - July 1, 2014

It was August 1960. Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen was warming up the crowd of 30,000, explaining why Vice President Richard Nixon should be president of the United States instead of Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Seated on the platform behind him were Dirksen’s daughter Joy, and her husband, Howard Henry Baker Jr., a 34-year-old lawyer from Huntsville, Tenn., who looked about 24.

“Jack Kennedy is a nice young man,” Dirksen was saying. “But all they can say he has ever done was serve on a PT boat in World War II.”

Turning toward his son-in-law with a flourish, Dirksen said, “Why, my own son-in-law, Howard Baker Jr., was on a PT boat in World War II, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that he was qualified to serve in any public office.”

Four years later Howard sought to become the first Tennessee Republican popularly elected to the United States Senate. He probably would have won if presidential candidate Barry Goldwater hadn’t stopped at the Knoxville airport a few days before the election and promised to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Howard ran again in 1966. I remember standing at that same airport being embarrassed by his prediction to the media that he would win by 100,000 votes, and then, a few days later, he did just that.

Behind Howard’s pleasant demeanor was a restless ambition that propelled him to the heights of American politics and government for 40 years.

In 1968, Howard and U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush were runners-up to Gov. Spiro Agnew when Nixon picked a vice president. In 1969, when Dirksen died, Howard ran for Republican Senate leader, only to be defeated by Sen. Hugh Scott.

In 1973 came the Watergate hearings, and the most famous words were Howard Baker’s: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The television exposure made Baker a national hero and, once again, runner-up in the vice-presidential sweepstakes in 1976, when Gerald Ford picked Bob Dole instead of Howard.

A few months later, in January 1977, on his third try, he was elected Republican leader by one vote. He served for eight years.

He occupied the White House, too — but not in the way he had planned.

In late 1986, the Bakers were vacationing in Miami. The phone rang; Joy answered. It was President Ronald Reagan.

“Where’s Howard?” asked Reagan.

“At the zoo with the grandchildren,” Joy said.

“Wait ’til he hears about the zoo I have planned for him,” the president said.

Howard gave up his dream of being president and became White House chief of staff, helping to cleanse the Reagan presidency of its Iran-Contra troubles.

Joy died in 1993. In 1996 Howard married Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. The two Senators Baker moved to Tokyo, where Howard became U.S. ambassador to Japan. When he returned, he headed the law firm that is a descendant of a law firm his grandfather founded in Huntsville. He always went home to Huntsville, which he called the “center of the known universe.” Howard Baker never stopped sounding like where he grew up.

Howard was an eloquent listener. In 2011 he said, “There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say. You don’t have to agree, but you have to hear what they’ve got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you’ll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership.”

He was called “The Great Conciliator” for his habit of gathering disputing senators into one room, listening for a while, and then his summary of the discussion would become the senators’ consensus.

He demonstrated courage. He supported civil rights when most Southerners didn’t. He and Sen. Robert Byrd found 68 votes to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty. Several Republican senators signed a letter asking Baker to resign as leader because of that.

He kept the door open to Republican primaries, attracting hundreds of thousands of “discerning Democrats” and independents and creating the majority status the Tennessee Republican Party enjoys today.

Dan Quayle, when he was a senator, summed it up: “There’s Howard Baker,” he said, “and then there’s the rest of us senators.”

Occasionally, a young person will ask me, “How can I become involved in politics?”

My answer always is, “Find someone you respect, volunteer to help him or her do anything legal and learn all you can from them. That’s what I did.”

How fortunate we were to know, be inspired by and learn from Tennessee’s favorite son and one of our country’s finest leaders, Howard Baker.