Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Remembering Howard Baker, Jr.

July 8, 2014 - July 8, 2014

I thank Senator McConnell from Kentucky for his eloquent remarks.  One other thing I said at the funeral was that Senator Baker had an eye for talent.  In 1969, when I was a young aide in the Nixon White House, Senator Baker came to me and said, “You might want to get to know that smart young legislative assistant for Senator Marlow Cook.”  That young legislative assistant was Mitch McConnell.  So I did get to know him. 


I thank Senator McConnell for coming to the funeral.  I thank Senator Reid, our majority leader, for being there as well.  They were there at the front of that small church in Huntsville, TN.  The vice president came.  He sat there, met everybody, showed his respect for both former Senator Baker and his wife, former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker.  We Tennesseans appreciated that courtesy by the vice president, the majority leader, and the minority leader very much. 


There were a number of others there.  Our governor was there; Senator Corker and I, of course, were there; Senator Fred Thompson; majority leader Bill Frist, whom Senator Baker had mentored; Senator Pete Domenici, Senator Bill Brock, Senator Elizabeth Dole and Senator Bennett Johnston were also there; as well as Senator Jack Danforth, who married Howard and Nancy; and our former Governors, Winfield Dunn and Don Sundquist.  It was a small church, but along with former Vice President Al Gore and the current vice president and the majority leader, as well as the minority leader, there was real respect for the former majority leader of the Senate. 

I will not try to repeat what I said at the funeral, and it was a privilege for me to be asked by the family to speak, but I did want to make two comments briefly, one personal and one about the Senate. 

The personal one that I said at the funeral was that I had tried to follow the rule in Lamar Alexander's “Little Plaid Book” that when invited to speak at a funeral, remember to mention the deceased more often than yourself and to talk more about Howard Baker than my relationship with him, but that was hard to do.  I waited until the end of my remarks to try to do that. 

No one had more influence on my life over the last half century than Howard Baker.  I came here with him in 1967 as his only legislative assistant.  That is how many legislative assistants senators had then.  They dealt mainly with one another, not through staff members.  I came back in 1977 when suddenly he was elected Republican leader on his third try by one vote, and I worked in the office that is now the Republican leader's office for 3 months helping him find a permanent chief of staff until I went back to Tennessee. 

Throughout my entire public life and private life, no one has had more effect on me by virtue of his effort to encourage me – as well as many other younger people who were working their way up in a variety of ways – and as an example for how to do things. 

My advice to younger people who want to know how to become involved in politics is to find someone whom you respect and admire, volunteer to go to work for them and do anything legal they ask you to do and learn from them, both the good and the bad.  I had the great privilege of working with the best. 

To give one small example of how closely intertwined our lives have become, I had the same office he had in the Dirksen Office Building.  I had the same phone number he had in the Dirksen Office Building.  If you open the drawer of this desk, you will find scratched in the drawer the names Baker, Thompson, and my name.  I have the same desk on this floor. 

As far as the Senate, just one story. A remarkably effective presentation at the funeral was made by the Reverend Martha Anne Fairchild, who for 20 years has been the minister of the small Presbyterian church in Huntsville.  She told a story about lightbulbs and Senator Baker. 

He was on the Session, which is the governing body of the church.  He was an elder, and he insisted on coming to the meetings.  She said that at one of the meetings of the Session, the elders, who represent the maybe 70 members of the church, fell into a discussion about new lightbulbs.  It was pretty contentious, and eventually they resolved it because Senator Baker insisted that they discuss it all the way through to the end. 

She talked with him later, and he said, “Well, I could have pulled out my checkbook and written a check for the new lightbulbs, but I thought it was more important that the elders have a full and long discussion so they all could be comfortable with the decision they made.”

That story about lightbulbs is how Howard Baker saw the U.S. Senate – as a forum for extended discussion where you have the patience to allow everyone to pretty well have their say in the hopes that you come to a conclusion that most of us are comfortable with and therefore the country is comfortable with it.  He understood that you only govern a complex country such as ours by consensus.  Whether it was lightbulbs or an 9-week debate on the Panama Canal during which there were nearly 200 contentious amendments and reservations and arguments, you have those discussions all the way through to the end. 

It is said that these days are much more contentious than the days of Howard Baker.  There are some things that are different today that make that sort of discussion more difficult, but we shouldn't kid ourselves – those weren't easy days either.  Those were the days when Vietnam veterans came home with Americans spitting on them.  Those were the days of Watergate.  Those were the days of Social Security going bankrupt and a 9-week contentious debate on the Panama Canal.  Those were the days of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Those were difficult days too.  Senator Baker and Senator Byrd on the Democratic side were able, generally speaking, to allow the Senate to take up those big issues and have an extended discussion all the way through to the end and come to a result.

Most of us in this body have the same principles.  Those principles all belong to what we call the American character.  They include such principles as equal opportunity, liberty, and E pluribus unum.  And most of our conflicts, the late Samuel Huntington used to say, are about resolving conflicts among those principles.  For example, if we are talking about immigration, we have a conflict between rule of law and equal opportunity, so how do we put those together and how do we come to a conclusion?  Howard Baker saw the way to do that as bringing to the floor a subject, hopefully with bipartisan support, and talking it all the way through to the end until most senators are comfortable with the decision.  His aid in that was, as Senator McConnell said, being an eloquent listener.  That is why he was admired by Members of both parties.  In one poll in the 1980s, he was considered to be the most admired senator by Democrats and by Republicans.  That is why Dan Quayle said, “There is Howard Baker and then there's the rest of us Senators.”

So I think the memory of Howard Baker, his lesson for us, is that – without assigning any blame to the Republican side or the Democratic side – we don't need a change of rules to make the Senate function, we need a change of behavior.  Howard Baker's behavior is a very good example, whether it was the Panama Canal, whether it was fixing Social Security, whether it was President Reagan's tax cuts, or whether it was resolving whether to buy new lightbulbs for the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, TN. 

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the record the remarks of Martha Anne Fairchild, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, TN, as well as two other documents, one by Arthur B. Culvahouse, Jr., who was Senator Baker's legislative assistant and President Reagan's counsel.  According to Culvahouse, Howard Baker told him that if the President did not truly know about the diversion of Iranian arms sales proceeds to the Contras, he was to help him – if he did not truly know.  The other is an article by Keel Hunt from the Tennessean about Senator Baker, and finally the funeral order of worship from the Baker ceremony.