“Our country has lost a great statesman and a great Tennessean. Senator Baker will live on in our hearts forever as a man who believed that government was to serve the people,” Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said.
To many, Baker symbolized the civility and bipartisanship of a bygone political era, one where lawmakers from both parties set aside personal convictions and party ideology to work together in the public interest.
“For Senator Baker, principle was more important than politics in his work. It was about doing the right thing. I have a great appreciation for the role Senator Baker played in terms of his bipartisan approach to policy, as well as the demeanor he carried with him in debate. The words ‘civic engagement’ really do characterize his perspective on political discourse and how it should take place in this country,” said Matt Murray, director of the Baker Center.
Remembering Senator Baker
People from around the world share their memories of Senator Baker and we highlight Senator Baker’s legacy on American politics in these video clips.
Elected to the US Senate in 1966—and then re-elected in 1972 and 1978—Baker’s diplomatic style was instrumental in the passage of such bipartisan efforts as the Panama Canal Treaty, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. But his position as Senate minority leader, and later Senate majority leader, was anything but easy, and Baker famously commented that leading the Senate was like “herding cats.”
But Baker’s ability to work with politicians across the political spectrum impressed President Ronald Reagan enough for him to personally ask Baker to become his chief of staff in 1987, when goodwill between Congress and the White House was at a low point following the Iran-Contra scandal. Baker is credited with greatly repairing the relationship between the two branches.
Straight Out of Tennessee
Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born in Huntsville, Tennessee, on November 15, 1925. His father, Howard H. Baker Sr., served as a state representative and a district attorney general during Baker’s childhood. His mother, Dora Ladd Baker, died when Baker was a child; several years later, his father married Irene Bailey. From 1950 until his death in 1964, Howard Baker Sr. served in the US House of Representatives; when he died, Irene took his place and served out the rest of his term.
As a young man Baker showed little interest in pursuing a political career, planning instead to become a lawyer like his father and grandfather before him. After graduating from a military preparatory school in 1943, he enlisted in the US Navy as part of its V-12 officer training program. At the conclusion of his tenure in the navy, Baker earned his law degree.
“Senator Baker is our college’s most illustrious alumnus and has made such a difference for the country, the state, and the university. He represents the best of what we do, thanks to his commitment to the legal profession and his commitment to community,” said Doug Blaze, dean of UT’s College of Law.
In 1951, Baker married Joy Dirksen, the daughter of US Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois.
After helping run his father’s successful 1950 congressional campaign, Baker settled down to practice law, joining the law firm founded by his grandfather in 1888. But after the death of his father, Baker began to make forays into the political world. In 1964 he ran—albeit unsuccessfully— against Ross Bass to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator Estes Kefauver. But in 1966 he won the election for that same seat, marking the beginning of his three terms as US senator from Tennessee.
When he ran for re-election in 1972, Baker touted his friendship and close working relationship with President Richard Nixon. Thus, Baker found himself in an awkward position a year later when he became chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, also known as the Senate Watergate Committee. But despite his personal admiration for Nixon, Baker maintained impartiality and pressed for information during the hearings, asking the now famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” In the decades following Watergate, Baker maintained that he believed Nixon did not know about the break-in; however, Baker added that when Nixon did find out about the incident he failed to act appropriately.
Baker’s ability to place his civic duty above his personal convictions impressed his colleagues in the Senate, and he was elected Republican minority leader in 1977 and majority leader in 1981. As majority leader Baker brokered many complex deals between Congress and the White House, often garnering bipartisan support among his colleagues for compromises on issues like spending cuts and tax hikes.
Murray says Baker’s bipartisan approach to policy is sorely lacking in today’s political landscape.
“He played a big role in helping push the Clean Air Act through Congress. As a Republican in a southern state to push so hard on an agenda that may have been viewed as being liberal, or counter to business, his was a signature action to protect the environment. You’d be hard pressed today to find leadership in Congress to take a stand like that,” Murray stated.
Baker said that his ability to convince other senators to work with him mostly stemmed from his nonconfrontational, friendly approach.
“One Republican senator was quoted as saying, when I went [to become White House chief of staff], ‘I don’t know how Baker got along so well with the Senate. All he ever did was get members in the cloakroom and tell them a funny story, and then they’d just do whatever it was he wanted.’ Which of course isn’t true, but it makes another point, which is that legislation and governance is a very personal matter. I believed in the personality of politics,” Baker stated.
Baker did not seek re-election in 1984. Murray noted that while Baker stayed true to his principles in the Senate, he did pay a “political price” for some of his efforts, such as the Panama Canal treaty and environmental legislation. But Baker’s great contributions to the country were recognized; in 1984 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
The Art of Diplomacy
Like Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal greatly damaged the public’s trust in the government, as well as Congress’s faith in the White House. When he assumed the position of chief of staff in 1987, Baker was facing a tense situation similar to the one he had weathered nearly fifteen years earlier. But he recalled that the president’s decision to hire him was largely based on his ability to get along with other lawmakers.
“I was well received. I suppose it signaled a new era. I believe that the relationship between Congress—especially the Senate—and the White House was significantly different, even after the year and a half I was there, from what it was in the beginning. There was an element of bipartisanship that I’d been involved with for years, because as Republican leader, or as minority leader for that matter, you’ve got to sort of bridge that chasm between the two sides. That bipartisan approach…seemed to go down well in the White House. The president, by the way, welcomed that,” Baker said.
Baker worked with Congress to further Reagan’s initiatives, but he did not automatically follow the president’s position on every issue. He disagreed with other White House and cabinet officials on the pullout of US warships from the Persian Gulf, and he voiced concerns about the administration’s decision to nominate Judge Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. But in 1988 Baker left his position in order to care for his wife, who later died of cancer. In 1996 Baker married former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum.
In 2001, more than a decade after he left the White House, Baker returned to government service as US Ambassador to Japan. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Baker worked to strengthen diplomatic ties between the United States and its closest Pacific ally.
Civility for Future Generations
In later years, Baker’s thoughts turned to future generations and how they could continue the spirit of cooperation and civic duty that marked his political career.
Baker founded the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in 2003. The center is devoted to supporting scholarship and fostering dialogue on topics pertaining to current events, governance, policy, and citizenship. It sponsors lectures, classes, workshops, research, and student initiatives related to policy and politics, particularly in the areas of global security, leadership and governance, and energy and the environment. The center also houses the papers of many Tennessee politicians from the past century, including Baker, Kefauver, Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Harold Ford Jr., and Representative John J. Duncan.
In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney was present for the groundbreaking of the Baker Center building. On October 31, 2008, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor attended the dedication of the center’s stately facilities at 1640 Cumberland Avenue.
One of the final Baker Center events the senator attended was veteran journalist Tom Brokaw’s visit to campus on November 13, 2013—coinciding with Baker’s eighty-eighth birthday two days later.
“I’m very proud to be associated with the Baker Center in a political environment that today is in many ways controversial and uncivil. I’m proud of raising the bar in debates and calling upon others to rise to the occasion. We can always disagree but still recognize the need for bipartisan solutions. These attitudes of mine have been sharpened since coming to the center. With everything we do here, the theme is always about Senator Baker and his legacy. I hope that is something that defines the Baker Center uniquely in the years and decades ahead,” Murray said.
Baker is survived by his wife; a son, Darek Baker of Brentwood, Tennessee; a daughter, Cynthia “Cissy” Baker of McLean, Virginia; two sisters; and four grandchildren.