Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born November 15, 1925, in Huntsville, Tennessee. Baker’s mother died when he was eight years old, and three years later his father married Irene Bailey. For high school, Baker attended McCallie School, a military preparatory school in Chattanooga. After his graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. As a candidate in the Navy’s V-12 officer training program, Baker was able to study electrical engineering at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and at Tulane University. At the end of his naval career, Baker attended the University of Tennessee Law School, where he earned his law degree in 1949.
In 1950, Baker served as campaign manager for his father’s successful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives. During his father’s first term, Baker met Joy Dirksen, the daughter of Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, and they married in December 1951. While living in Huntsville, Alabama, the couple had their son, Darek, in 1953, and their daughter, Cynthia, in 1956. Baker’s father served in the House until his death in 1963, at which time the people of Tennessee elected Baker’s stepmother, Irene, to complete the term.
As a young man, Baker did not have political ambitions. In 1964, however, he decided to run for the U.S. 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.
During his first term in office, Baker helped pass legislation that enabled the federal government to share revenues with the states, and he also helped draft the Clean Air Act, demonstrating a commitment to environmental issues that he sustained throughout his career. He went on to serve three terms as a Tennessee senator, from 1967 until 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, serving as the highest-ranking Republican on the committee. It was during these hearings that Baker uttered one of the most memorable questions of the affair: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
Baker was the keynote speaker at the Republican convention in 1976, and Gerald Ford considered him for a running mate. He was elected Senate Minority Leader in 1977, a position he held until 1981. During this time Baker helped revise the Clean Air Act, and he supported the Panama Canal Treaties.