The funeral of one of the finest public servants in my lifetime will be held this morning in a small Presbyterian Church in the tiny East Tennessee town of Huntsville. When I first heard of Senator Howard Baker’s passing last week I felt more than a usual measure of sadness about the death of a well-known American. Baker, the former son-in-law of the famous Everett Dirksen, served as Ronald Reagan’s chief-of-staff, as Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate and as an ambassador to Japan. Howard Baker filled many roles during his illustrious public life but the man Howard Baker was an even better person than he was a political leader. Let me tell you why I believe this is true.
Howard Baker (1925–2014) was 88 years old when he died. He rose to prominence when he famously asked at the Senate Watergate Committee hearings: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The beginning of the end for President Nixon was clear when the voice of Howard Baker was raised in honest doubt about the leader of his own party. Men like Howard Baker and Gerald Ford were rare, though not entirely rare in those days. They were long-time political insiders but they were also respected on both sides of the aisle as honest, straight-shooters who sought consensus and did what they believed to be the right thing for their country regardless of the personal consequences. Baker was known among his peers as “The Great Conciliator.” He knew how to broker compromises, how to adjust a deal with a plurality of opinions and people involved, and how to seek consensus. I find this almost entirely absent in modern Washington politics.
One newspaper wrote, just after Howard Baker’s passing, “No politician in modern times has been as qualified to be president but never made it than Howard Henry Baker.” I agree. Sadly, capable good guys like Howard Baker are hard to nominate and elect these days.
Howard Baker Jr.’s father, Howard Sr., served as a member of the U.S. House from a traditionally Republican district in East Tennessee from 1951–1964. So Howard Jr. came from a political family.
I shall never forget the first time that I met Howard Baker. I was 15 years old. He was running for the senate seat in Tennessee against a liberal Democrat named Ross Bass. The seat that both men sought had been held for years by the famous Estes Kefauver. Kefauver was a legend in Tennessee politics. He had also run as a vice-presidential candidate in 1956 with Adlai Stevenson, having secured this nomination over the young John F. Kennedy in an open convention vote.
I met Howard Baker during the campaign season of 1964 when he ran for the open senate seat held by Kefauver who had died while serving his six-year term. When I met Baker I was energized. I think there might have been fifteen people in the room at a small lunch meeting when we met. I’ll never forget the occasion. Howard Baker made me feel important and welcome. He also energized me as a young teenager by encouraging me to pursue high goals of service with my life. (At that time I thought that I would enter political service!) He was as down-home, as we Tennesseans would put it, as he could be. I loved the guy and I followed his career in public service for the rest of his life. He lost that first election in 1964 but came back two years later to run for the same seat and was elected to serve a full six-year term. He beat the former governor Frank G. Clement in 1966. Baker thus became the first Republican senator in Tennessee since Reconstruction. He was re-elected in 1972 and 1978. President Nixon asked Baker to serve on the Supreme Court but when he took a long time to decide Nixon passed over him for William Rehnquist, who later became the Chief Justice. Baker ran for the presidency in 1980 but lost to George H. W. Bush who eventually lost to Ronald Reagan. In 1984 Baker left the senate. In 1981 Baker received the U. S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an annual award given by the Jefferson Awards. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
Howard Baker was a deeply committed Presbyterian who lived his Christian values in both his public and private life. He didn’t talk about his faith in order to get votes, he lived his faith and served people well. How I miss these days before the “culture wars” began in earnest.
Columnist Carol Marin, writing in the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times (June 29, 2014), said that Howard Baker taught her a thing or two about reading a script in front of a camera. Marin tells of Baker walking into a Nashville studio where she worked in 1978 and sitting down at her anchor desk to speak to the people of Nashville. Baker had just voted to give the Panama Canal to the people of Panama, a decision that had been promoted by President Jimmy Carter and one that was despised by most conservatives at the time. Baker had a speech prepared but when the cameras came on live Carol Marin says he looked into the camera and talked to the people of his state. The teleprompter rolled but Baker paused, spoke off script and let words flow from his heart. He told his fellow Tennesseans that he and agonized over his decision but did what he felt was right. Says Carol Marin, “Call Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator, if you want. But for my money, it was Howard Baker.” But she adds, “He was so much more.” He was a man of profound courage who did what he honestly felt was in the national interest, not what he believed would get him re-elected. For liberals he was not far enough to the left and for conservatives he was not far enough to the right. Says Marin, “Senator Baker, in my experience, was always in search of balance. And, heaven forbid, dialogue.”
It is this last sentence that says it all for me. Baker was not like Obama, Boehner and our current leaders in both parties. He talked openly to the press routinely. He hid from no question. He was fearless in telling the truth. When he once stumbled over a line in speaking about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) he made a misstatement. He was asked if they should re-record the sentence. He declined and said “People don’t trust perfection.” Carol Marin says, “You might call that manipulation. Phony, not real. But it was something else to my mind. It was trying to find the in the fractiousness of politics, a common human chord.”
Was Howard Baker simply a great salesman?
Carol Marin writes: “Absolutely. But more often than not, Howard Baker was selling his convictions in behalf of collaboration and compromise.”
Washington seems almost devoid of such salesmen today. Where is deep conversation, real dialogue and good compromise happening? In my acceptance speech delivered when I was awarded the Luminosa Award for my work for unity on June 22 I asked this question: “Where in Washington is the Christian leader who will seek to create a dialogue rooted in the spirituality of Christian love? We have a lot of Christians in our Congress but there seems to be an near complete absence of such deep spirituality.”
I will miss Howard Baker. His passing makes me long for a new generation of such leaders to arise.
I could not create a proper hyperlink but there is some interesting information about the Howard Baker funeral that can be seen (paste this address into your search engine) at: http://www.wbir.com/story/news/local/scott-campbell-morgan/2014/06/29/first-presbyterian-church-prepares-howard-baker-junior-funeral/11717391/
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Jerry Fourroux liked this on Facebook.
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This was splendid, John.
Ray Prigodich liked this on Facebook.
Yes; he was one of the first senators I had the privilege of meeting when I first moved to DC. .. I’ll never forget him, either. He enjoyed being with young people and always encouraged them. An incredible public servant and all-around great guy.
Thank you, John. He was one of my (few) political heroes. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!
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As a Gen Xer come of age in a post-Watergate political environment, this was very refreshing to read.
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