Speeches & Floor Statements

Speech: Howard Baker, Jr.: Tennessee’s Favorite Son and One of Our Country’s Finest Leaders

Eulogy of Senator Howard Baker, Jr.

July 1, 2014 - July 1, 2014

On behalf of the Baker family and all of us Tennesseans, let me welcome Vice President Biden, Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, and Senator Danforth, who married Howard and Nancy.

It was August, 1960. Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. Senator 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 Senator 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, Tennessee, 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, instead of running for the safe congressional seat that his father and stepmother had held, Howard Baker, Jr., ran 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 Baker’s pleasant demeanor was a restless ambition that would propel him to the heights of American politics and government for forty years.  

He learned quickly. His maiden address in the Senate lasted about an hour. Afterwards, he asked Senator Dirksen, the Senate Republican Leader, “How did I do?”

“Howard,” Dirksen replied, “perhaps you should occasionally enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought.”

In 1968, Howard and Congressman George Bush were runners-up to Governor Spiro Agnew when Nixon picked a vice president. In 1969, when Dirksen died, after only three years in the Senate, he ran for Republican Leader, only to be defeated by Senator Hugh Scott.

In 1971, President Nixon asked him to be on the Supreme Court. Howard declined, then called back and said he would accept if the president insisted, but Nixon had already appointed Bill Rehnquist.

In 1973 came the Watergate hearings. Eight-five percent of Americans saw those hearings, broadcast most days by all of the only four television networks that then existed. And the most famous words were Howard Baker’s: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Howard suspected that Senator Scott had made him Ranking Republican on the Watergate Committee to “get rid of me as a competitor.” He had run against Scott a second time for Leader, and lost. But instead, the 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.  

Senator Scott retired, and a few months later, in January, 1977, Howard was elected Republican Leader by one vote. He served for eight years. When, in 1980, the Republican sweep made him majority leader, he visited the wily Democratic Leader Robert Byrd. First, Howard surprised Byrd by suggesting that Byrd keep his ornate office.

Having softened up Byrd, Baker then said, “Senator Byrd, I’ll never learn the rules as well as you know them, so I’ll make a deal with you: I won’t surprise you if you won’t surprise me.”

Byrd replied, “Let me think about it.” The next day he agreed. And they ran the Senate together for four more years. 

Baker then commandeered an additional set of offices next to the Republican Leader’s less-spacious quarters that are today called the “Howard Baker Rooms.” He always said that the view from the Howard Baker rooms was the second best view in Washington. The best, of course, is from the White House, which he also occupied—but not in the way he had planned.

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

“Where’s Howard?” asked Reagan.

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

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

Howard became White House chief of staff, helping to cleanse the Reagan presidency of its Iran-Contra troubles.

President Reagan and Howard Baker began each day telling each other a little story. “It got to be a lot of stories,” Howard said. I always felt a little better about our country knowing we had two men at the top with such temperament.

Joy died in 1993. In 1996, Howard married Nancy. Those of us at the wedding were happy because we had never seen two people so happy.

In 1996, 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.

What skills allowed Howard Baker to accomplish so much?

He was an eloquent listener. He said in 2011, “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’ agreement. 

He demonstrated courage. He supported civil rights when most southerners didn’t. He and Senator 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.

Roy Blount, Jr., says you start getting into trouble when you stop sounding like where you grew up. Howard Baker never stopped sounding like where he grew up. He always went home to Huntsville, which he called the “center of the known universe.”

He had an eye for talent. In 1969, he told me, “You ought to meet that smart young legislative assistant who works for Senator Marlow Cook.” That assistant was Mitch McConnell. Howard mentored another Tennessee majority leader, Bill Frist; Senators Thompson and Corker; and Governors Sundquist and Haslam; Ambassadors Ashe and Montgomery; Congressman Duncan—as well as many others in this congregation.   

With Bill Brock and Winfield Dunn, 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.

Howard Baker knew how to make the Senate work. He understood that the Senate’s unique role is as a place for extended debate and amendment on important issues until there is a consensus. That is how he fixed Social Security with Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how he passed the Reagan tax cuts and the Clean Air and Water laws.

One thing he did not do well was fundraising. He left that to Ted Welch and Jim Haslam and Bill Swain. According to Jim, “Howard would not raise any money at all, until he started raising money for the Baker Center and then he made every call with me.”          

*                                  *                                  *

In the new version of Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book, there is this rule: “When invited to speak at a funeral, remember to mention the deceased at least as often as yourself.”

I have done my best to follow that rule today, but I hope you understand how difficult that is for me, as it would be for many of you.

So let me just get it out all at once:

For the last half century, Howard Baker has had more influence on my life than anyone outside my own family. He inspired me to help him build a two-party system. I babysat for Darek and Cissy. I met Honey at a softball game between the Baker staff and the John Tower staff. My favorite photograph of her is one Howard took at the Baker home when we were celebrating our marriage. Our daughter Leslee was flower girl at Darek and Karen’s wedding. I occupy the same Senate office Howard once had in the Dirksen Senate office building. My desk on the Senate floor was once his desk.

As his legislative assistant, I wrote his speeches, prompting him to tell the story at least 100 times of how I once asked to see him privately to determine if there was some problem with our relationship because I had learned that he never said in his speeches any of the words that I had written. 

“Lamar,” he replied, “we have a perfect relationship. You write what you want to write—and I’ll say what I want to say.”

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

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.”