The passing of Howard Baker


This came in a little while ago from The Washington Post:

Former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, who framed the central question of the Watergate scandal when he asked “what did the president know and when did he know it?” and framed portraits of history with his ever-present camera while Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff, died June 26 at his home in Huntsville, Tenn. He was 88.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said longtime aide Tom Griscom….

That’s me with Baker in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1980. I had just arrived to cover him as he campaigned for the presidential nomination. It’s a shame that he didn’t do better than he did.

And it’s a greater shame that there are so few pragmatic centrists like Baker left — a fair-minded conservative who did not hesitate to grill the Nixon administration to discover the truth.

We still have Lamar Alexander, who comes out of that same commonsense Tennessee Republican tradition — people who gained high office before the Reagan revolution, and before the hardening of ideological positions on both ends of the spectrum. Our own Lindsey Graham is made from a similar mold — although, being of a later generation, he is more marked by the partisan wars than Baker ever was.

But the Howard Bakers, the Sam Nunns, the Scoop Jacksons… they’re all gone. And we’re worse off for it…

8 thoughts on “The passing of Howard Baker

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, that guy in the background of the picture of Baker and me, the one who seems to be looking straight into the camera — that MIGHT be Tom Griscom (later White House communications director), who is cited in the Post’s story, releasing the news of Baker’s death…

    That was an aide to Baker, one who as I recall had newspaper connections (as did Griscom) but I can’t remember for sure whether it was him. It was still so early in my career, and I was still learning who was who…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, in searching for that Baker picture, I accidentally was reminded that Baker looms large in the legend of the UnParty. I mentioned him in the following short post, which was apparently the seed of the thought that became my initial UnParty column, which followed a couple of months later:

    Actually, the item on “Morning Edition” that followed the one referenced in my last postingholds much greater significance, and is worth listening to if only for this: It makes a passing reference to the possibility that Ariel Sharon, under attack from within his own party over the Gaza withdrawal, was thinking about forming a new, centrist party to challenge bothLikud and Labour — if Bibi is successful in his attempt to overthrow him. (Which he was not — this time.)

    Now set aside for a moment whether including “Sharon” and “centrist” in the same sentence constitutes an oxymoron (I would argue that it does not, given some of his moves lately — if you’ll let me ignore some of his other moves lately). What interested me about that was this:

    If the leader of a nation who’s very existence is constantly under threat — a place where differences between parties are about the life or death of the nation, not just abstract ideology — can seriously think about minting a new party that charts a middle way, then why on Earth can’t we do the same here in the States?

    Imagine a party in which John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden or our own Lindsey Graham might actually have a chance of getting the presidential nomination — or which, in the past, might have nominated a Scoop Jackson or a Howard Baker. Now that would be a party that might cause me to question my universal disdain toward the very idea of parties.

    So in other words, Baker was UnParty material before the UnParty was even named…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Continuing to reminisce, having a conversation with myself…

    The obit reminds me of how Baker was known as a big photography enthusiast.

    When we were trapped by an ice storm in the general aviation terminal in Dubuque, at one point Baker and my photographer, Mark Humphrey, went out onto the tarmac and started shooting pictures of each other. Whenever Mark and I worked together, he’d have me carry one of his cameras (I did a lot of my own photography as a reporter) so that I could maybe catch good shots that he missed.

    So I followed them out into the storm, and shot a picture of them taking pictures of each other. I wish I had a copy of that. But I have this vague memory of Mark telling me it didn’t turn out — on account of being shot during an ice storm. Otherwise, I’d have one, just as he gave me the above print and a couple of others from the trip…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Baker, as White House chief of staff, was a steadying influence and wise guide, rather like my fictional hero Leo McGarry. From the WashPost story:

    Before signing on, Mr. Baker found himself, again, asking: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

    This time he sought the answer in private with the president, satisfying himself Reagan was innocent of any subterfuge in the affair.

    The team Mr. Baker brought to the White House provided an immediate lift. They put together a penitential presidential speech, reassured the Senate that one of its own was at the president’s side and abandoned the promotion of then-CIA deputy director Robert M. Gates to be director of the agency because the nomination attracted further questions about the Iran-Contra affair.

    The result: Reagan’s plunging approval rating began a steady climb throughout the remaining two years of his second term.

    Accepting the job, Mr. Baker worried about moving from the Senate to a staff position. He told Kenneth M. Duberstein, who became Reagan’s deputy chief of staff and succeeded Mr. Baker during the president’s final year in office, “I’ve never managed anything before in my life. I’ve only been a U.S. senator.”

    Six months into the job, he said in an interview with David Eisenhower, an author and grandson of the former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that Reagan knew he was not getting a traditional nuts-and-bolts chief of staff when he replaced the previous staff chief, Donald T. Regan.

    “The president knew me, knew what I looked like, knew that I had expertise on a wide range of issues and would give him the benefit of my opinions,” he said in the interview, which was published in the New York Times.

    Mr. Baker became the public face of the White House staff, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, for example, while Duberstein ran the West Wing operations.

    Just days into the job, Mr. Baker discovered one of its unspoken challenges: Dealing with the first lady. He considered quitting after an altercation with Nancy Reagan. She had sent word she wanted a certain staffer fired but then blew up at Mr. Baker when he let others know the orders came from her and not the president.

    “Tommy, I didn’t come here for that. She is the one who wanted him fired . . . I’m not going to put up with that,” Griscom said Mr. Baker complained to him, before being persuaded that his quitting would undercut the remaining two years of the president’s tenure….

    1. Dave

      It’s surprising how little attention is being paid to Baker’s death and his contributions to American Politics (as evidenced, perhaps, by the near monologue in this comments section), given Baker’s importance to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps there’s some hope for a return to his brand of politics, in SC no less. Arguably no one did more to harden the partisan battle lines in this country than Lee Atwater. So it’s fitting that Molly Spearman, someone clearly cut from the Baker mold, should defeat Atwater’s widow, who was running largely on Atwater’s name recognition, in the week that Baker passed.

  5. Bart

    Add one more to the list along with Baker who would not let Nixon off the hook. The late Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a Democrat. Baker and Ervin were relentless in their pursuit of the truth, no matter where it led and who was involved in Watergate. A little enigmatic at times but always honest to a fault.

  6. Maggie

    Good story in the Greenville News yesterday about the passing of another hero of Watergate, this one unknown to me until now — South Carolinian Johnnie Mac Walters.
    An excerpt:
    Three months after the break-in and before anyone knew the extent that it was tied to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, White House counsel John Dean handed Walters, commissioner of the IRS, a list with the names of 200 Democrats and asked him to find information about them and “not cause ripples.”

    Walters took the list, obtained Treasury Secretary George Shultz’s permission to do nothing, and locked it in his safe in the IRS headquarters.

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