Howard Henry Baker, Jr. was born November 15, 1925, in Huntsville, Tennessee. As a young man, Baker did not have political ambitions, but he served as president of the UT student body, and graduated from UT Law school in 1949. This followed his service in the Navy and earlier dreams of becoming an engineer or pilot. Upon graduation he practiced law in Huntsville and in 1964 he ran for the US Senate in a special election to fill the vacancy created when Senator Estes Kefauver died. Despite his loss in 1964, he ran again in 1966. Baker won 56 percent of the popular vote and became Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican senator, and he went on to serve three terms as a Tennessee senator, from 1967 until his retirement in 1985.
During his career in the Senate, Baker became known as “The Great Conciliator” for his ability to bring lawmakers from both political parties together to resolve pressing issues. He rose to national prominence during the Watergate hearings of 1973-1974 as Vice Chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, when he uttered that famous question, What did the President know and when did he know it?
He served as Senate Majority Leader and Minority Leader, and he was a candidate for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. In 1987-88, he served as President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff and effectively dealt with a growing scandal within the Reagan Administration, known as the Iran Contra Affair. He retired again to travel and practice law, before being appointed in in 2001 by President George W. Bush as US Ambassador to Japan. In 2005, he retired once again and returned to Tennessee to work with his law firm, Baker Donelson in Huntsville, TN. He devoted much time to the Baker Center, offering insight and suggestions from his long and illustrious career.
Sen. Baker married Joy Dirksen, daughter of Sen. Everett Dirksen, in 1951 and they had two children, Darek and Cissy Baker. Joy died in 1993 after a long battle with cancer. In 1996, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum and they resided in Huntsville, Tennessee and Morris County, Kansas.
Sen. Baker died on June 26, 2014 at the age of 88 in Huntsville, Tennessee. He was in repose in the Rotunda of the Baker Center for the public on Monday, June 30 and a funeral was held in Huntsville on Tuesday, July 1. The funeral was attended by family, friends and many Washington dignitaries including Vice President Joe Biden, Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Fred Thompson, Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Lamar Alexander, who provided the eulogy.