June 27, 2014 - June 27, 2014
By Chas Sisk
Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican who reshaped Tennessee politics, played a leadership role in one of the nation's darkest hours and contended for the presidency, has died.
Baker, who was 88, passed away Thursday at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., following complications from a stroke suffered last week. His wife, former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, was with him.
Howard H. Baker, Jr., served 18 years in the U.S. Senate starting in 1966, when he became the first Republican to be popularly elected to that body from Tennessee. Baker was also a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, an envoy to Russia under President George H.W. Bush and a U.S. Ambassador to Japan in President George W. Bush's administration.
In 1984, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam ordered Tennessee flags lowered to half-staff to mark his passing.
Baker's health had been poor in recent years, but despite making few public appearances, his impact on Tennessee politics remained large.
Baker lost his first bid for the Senate in 1964, a special election to fulfill the remainder of Sen. Estes Kefauver's term. Two years later, he easily captured the Republican nomination a second time and beat his Democratic opponent, Gov. Frank G. Clement, by nearly 100,000 votes, signaling a sea change in Tennessee politics.
His victory inspired Republicans such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, who would work for Baker as his legislative assistant. He called Baker "one of America's finest leaders."
"No one has had more of an impact on my life, outside of my own family, than Howard Baker," Alexander told reporters in Knoxville. "He stands as a great example for all of us who are a part of public service."
Baker was also a major figure in national politics.
"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," President Barack Obama said in a press release.
As the vice-chairman of the special committee that investigated Watergate in 1973, Baker helped focus a nation's attention on President Richard Nixon's involvement, turning what many had seen as a political scandal into a phenomenon that would shake up American politics.
"What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Baker asked, posing a question still remembered four decades later.
Some credited his bipartisan pursuit of the truth for helping to restore some measure of confidence in government.
Former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who served as minority counsel to the committee, recalled the immense pressure Baker faced as the top Republican and his efforts to keep disagreements with other senators behind close doors so the focus could remain on the investigation.
"Watching him handle himself under pressure, I guess, was the greatest lesson I learned," Thompson said. "Every adult in America watched what he was doing."
Three years later, Baker came close to winning the Republican nomination for vice president, an honor that instead went to a colleague from Kansas, Sen. Bob Dole. He came up short again in 1980 when he ran for president.
It would not be the final word on his political career, however. In 1977, Senate Republicans elected him minority leader, and he became majority leader in 1981 when the GOP took control of the chamber.
Baker cherished campaigning and the institution of the Senate, recalled Tom Ingram, a political strategist who covered his 1966 and 1972 Senate runs as a reporter. One of Baker's few regrets, Ingram said, was advocating television cameras in the Senate chamber, which he said had encouraged senators to speechify rather than mingle with one another.
"He said he would undo it if he could," Ingram said.
Baker left the Senate in 1985, only to join Reagan's staff two years later. Baker stepped in as the administration reeled from a scandal that, like Watergate, had tattered a Republican president's reputation — the disclosure that White House aides had illegally sold arms to Iran to finance insurgency operations in Nicaragua.
The decision essentially meant the end of Baker's presidential ambitions.
Baker stayed with Reagan for a little over a year. The elder Bush would call on him in 1991 to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the younger Bush would appoint him ambassador to Japan in 2001, a position he held for four years.
Afterward, Baker joined the law firm his grandfather had founded, now known as Baker Donelson.
In addition to his wife, Baker is survived by his children, Darek and Cynthia. Baker's first wife, Joy, passed away in 1993.
Baker will lie in repose Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Funeral services will be held Tues., July 1, at the First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville.
In his memory, his family asks mourners to consider making contributions to the Baker Center or the Howard H. Baker Medical Scholarship Fund.