Howard Baker, a three-term Republican United States Senator from Tennessee who was one of the most respected figures in Washington during his tenure from 1967 to 1985, has died at his home in Hunstville, Tennessee at age 88, his former press secretary confirmed Thursday. Perhaps best-known to the public as a key figure on the Senate Watergate Committee, Baker passed away due to a stroke he suffered on Saturday.
Baker also briefly served as Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and 1988, at a time when the Reagan White House was reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal, as well as several instances of internal squabbling. Though Baker’s political philosophy was always resolutely moderate, he was brought into the conservative Reagan administration to restore a perception of integrity at a time when the White House sorely needed it.
But Howard Baker’s most memorable moment came in June of 1973 when, during the nationally televised Senate hearings into the Watergate scandal — centering around a break-in by White House operatives at the Democratic National Committee offices — he phrased a question that gave voice to the uneasy feelings of the entire nation.
“What did the president know?” Baker asked. “And when did he know it?”
Baker’s eloquent phrasing focused public attention on President Richard Nixon’s role in authorizing the break in and the cover-up that followed, and is credited as a turning point in the scandal that culminated in Nixon’s resignation the following year.
But Baker, though it gained him national recognition, looked on the Watergate scandal as his “greatest disillusionment.”
Politically, Howard Baker was a Republican, but one whose centrist beliefs are absent from the Republican party as it exists today. Baker was known as “the great conciliator” for his ability to work with members of both parties to fashion legislation and move the legislative process forward.
“He’s like the Tennessee River,” said his stepmother, Irene Bailey Baker, on one occasion. “He flows right down the middle.”
“He was one of those senators who could walk across the aisle, cut deals and he was respected on both sides,” said Gloria Borger, a political analyst for CNN. “Today in the Republican Party, that would be taken as a negative.”
For example, while today’s Republican party has opposed most major pieces of environmental legislation, in 1970 Baker authored the landmark Clean Air Act, which established a strong program of federal regulations to rid the atmosphere of harmful contaminants.
He also wrote major water pollution cleanup legislation two years later.
Howard Baker was elected to the Senate in 1966 and served until the end of his third term in January of 1985. Two years later, he accepted the job as Regan’s cheif of staff. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to Japan from 2001 to 2005, throughout the first term of President George W. Bush.