Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Former Sen. Howard Baker dies

FILE - This May 17, 1973 file photo shows Fred D. Thompson, Chief Minority Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, left, talking with Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. during the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush´s first term.   (AP Photo, File)
FILE - This May 17, 1973 file photo shows Fred D. Thompson, Chief Minority Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, left, talking with Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. during the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington. Baker, who asked what President Richard Nixon knew about Watergate, has died. He was 88. Baker, a Republican, served 18 years in the Senate. He earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike and rose to the post of majority leader. He served as White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration and was U.S. ambassador to Japan during President George W. Bush's first term. (AP Photo, File)

WASHINGTON - Howard Baker's question sliced to the core of Watergate: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Repeated over and again in the senator's mild Tennessee drawl, those words guided Americans through the tangle of Watergate characters and charges playing daily on TV to focus squarely on Richard Nixon and his role in the cover-up.

His famous question has been dusted off for potential White House scandals big and small ever since.

Mr. Baker, 88, who later became Senate majority leader, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, and one of the GOP's elder statesmen, died Thursday at his Tennessee home of complications from a stroke suffered days earlier, according to an e-mail distributed at the law firm where he was senior counsel.

Mr. Baker emerged as an unlikely star of the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973.

When chosen as vice chairman - and therefore leading Republican - of the Senate special committee, he was a Nixon ally who thought the allegations couldn't possibly be true. Democrats feared he would serve as the White House's "mole" in the investigation of the break-in at Democratic headquarters and other crimes perpetrated in service to Nixon's reelection.

"I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing," Mr. Baker told the Associated Press in 1992. "But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked."

He said Watergate became "the greatest disillusionment" of his career.

His intense but restrained style of interrogating former White House aides played well on camera. A youthful-looking, side-burned 47, his brainy charm inspired a raft of love notes sent to his Senate office; a women's magazine proclaimed him "studly." He was mentioned frequently as presidential material.

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Mr. Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts.

Howard Henry Baker Jr. had a fine political pedigree - his father was a congressman from Huntsville, Tenn., and his father-in-law was Everett M. Dirksen, a prominent senator from Illinois. Over the years, his name would be knocked about for big Washington jobs including vice presidential candidate, Supreme Court justice, and CIA director. But his focus remained on the Senate and, at times, the White House.

In 18 years as a moderate Republican senator, he was known for plain speaking and plain dealing. He had a talent for brokering compromise.

"Senator Baker truly earned his nickname: the Great Conciliator," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Thursday, announcing Mr. Baker's death to the Senate. "I know he will be remembered with fondness by members of both political parties."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who once worked as an assistant to Mr. Baker, called him "Tennessee's favorite son" and "an indispensable friend."

"He built our state's two-party political system and inspired three generations to try to build a better state and country," Alexander said in a news release.

Mr. Baker was minority leader when the Reagan landslide swept Republicans into control of the Senate in 1980, and he became the first Republican majority leader in decades.

Putting aside his reservations about Reagan's economic proposals, Mr. Baker played a key role in passage of legislation synonymous with the "Reagan Revolution" - major cuts in taxes and spending combined with a military buildup.

During much of the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Baker grappled with the illness of his wife, Joy. She died in 1993 after an 11-year battle with cancer. They had two children. In 1996, Mr. Baker married Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R., Kan.), who was about retire from the Senate.

Connie Cass Associated Press
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