Gateway to the Big South Fork

Howard H. Baker Jr.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

That was the question asked of U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. With millions of Americans glued to their televisions and following the hearings intently, it was a question that made Baker a household name.

Howard H. Baker — “Howard Henry,” as folks affectionately called him back home in Huntsville — was in many ways well prepared to be the political leader that America needed in troubled times. Back in Scott County, his grandfather was a judge, his grandmother was the first woman to be sheriff in Tennessee, and his father was congressman for 13 years until his death. “Young Howard … grew up as gentry among the hillbillies,” the New York Times derisively wrote in 1982.

Suffice to say that there were few people in Washington who could’ve picked out tiny Huntsville, Tenn. on a map when Baker arrived in the nation’s capital in 1967. Yet, the soft-spoken, grounded Baker — who was just at much at home in nature, photographing wildlife, as he was debating legislation on the Senate floor — became a favorite of Republicans and Democrats alike because of his ability to reach out to both sides.

Baker was a Republican, but he was also a centrist. “Moderate to moderately conservative” is how he described himself.

“He’s like the Tennessee River,” his stepmother, Irene Bailey Baker, once said. “He flows right down the middle.”

Today, it’s almost an afterthought that Tennessee will elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate. But it wasn’t always that way. When Baker first ran for office, in 1964, he lost to Democrat Ross Bass by 4.7 points. It was the closest that a Republican had ever come to being popularly elected to the Senate from Tennessee.

Two years later, Baker ran against former Governor Frank G. Clement and won easily, capturing 56% of the vote. He became Tennessee’s first Republican Senator since Reconstruction, and the first Republican to ever be popularly elected to the Senate from Tennessee. He accomplished that feat by making significant inroads with two traditional Democratic voting blocs: blacks and young Americans.

So began the political career of the man who would become known as “The Great Conciliator” because — as Forbes magazine put it — “he was not so wedded to ideology that he could not compromise. He believed that government worked best when both parties worked together. He was also principled.”

“Friendly and unfailingly courteous” is how the New York Times described Baker when he died in 2014, adding that he was “popular with lawmakers of both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.”

Baker was a Republican, all right. He believed in tight fiscal budgets and military strength — two mainstays of the Republican platform. But he also supported civil rights legislation and environmental protection measures, two things that were sometimes at odds with the conservative agenda.

In 1970, Baker helped draft the Clean Water Act. Two years later, he helped write the Water Pollution Control Act. It was two years after that that Baker accomplished what he considered his greatest environmental feat — working with fellow Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky to pass legislation establishing the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. In so doing, he saved the rugged and scenic Big South Fork River gorge from being dammed and flooded. He said that he would be remembered for that long after anything else.

On social issues, Baker was equally hard to pigeonhole. He found abortion “personally abhorrent” and said that the federal government oughtn’t to fund abortions, except when a mother’s life was in danger, but he also believed that abortion was a highly personal issue and the government shouldn’t be involved in trying to outlaw it.

t was soon after he first arrived in Washington that Baker began to make a name for himself as someone who wouldn’t tow the party line simply for the sake of towing the party line. One of his first priorities was to see the Senate loosen its seniority system so that new legislators would have more influence. By striking that stance, he found himself in opposition to his own father-in-law, the powerful U.S. Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois.

It was Dirksen — whose daughter, Joy, Baker met during his father’s first term in Congress and later married in 1951 — who helped educate Baker in the art of compromise. But Baker had already shown that he would blaze his own path in the Senate, that he wasn’t afraid to stand on principle even if it put him at odds with his own party.

That was most evident when Baker was appointed to be the ranking Republican on a bipartisan committee tasked with investigating the Watergate burglary and other allegations of wrongdoing involving President Richard Nixon. Nixon had been one of Baker’s earliest political allies — he campaigned across Tennessee for Baker in 1966, offered him a seat on the Supreme Court in 1971, and was rumored to have considered Baker as his running mate in 1968.

Baker’s appointment might have been awkward for many legislators. It was the Senate’s Republican leader at the time, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who insisted that Baker be the ranking Republican on the Watergate committee, and it was widely believed that Scott saw an opportunity to embarrass Baker — who had twice run against Scott for the Senate’s Republican leadership post — because it was no secret that Baker and Nixon were friends and allies.

But Baker took the appointment in stride. There were no Republican Senators of significant influence who dared to oppose President Donald Trump during the 2020 impeachment proceedings, just as there were no Democrat Senators of significant influence who had the courage to oppose President Bill Clinton in 1999. But in 1973, Baker asked a question that came to symbolize the Watergate hearings, and defined a generation of American politics: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

The Nixon presidency was about to collapse, and Baker was helping to bring it down.

Suddenly, the World War II veteran and attorney from little Huntsville, Tenn. — the man who had gone door to door back in Scott County to help collect money to start a telephone cooperative when Ma Bell wasn’t willing to sufficiently invest there — was a figure of national prominence. And where his political future was concerned, it seemed that the sky was the limit.

Baker aspired big. He didn’t make a secret of that. He hoped that President Gerald Ford would pick him for his running mate in 1976. And Ford might’ve. Baker seemed to have the inside track to land on the ticket. But when he revealed that his wife, Joy, was a recovered alcoholic, the tables turned. Ford instead chose Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate.

That might have been to Ford’s detriment. Baker was the man of compromise, the conciliator who was admired on both sides of the political landscape. Dole, by contrast, was much more of a conservative firebrand. Ford ultimately lost that election to Georgian Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, Baker made a run for the presidency, finishing third in the New Hampshire Republican primary behind Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Although he was polling second among the GOP candidates, it was clear that Reagan would win the nomination, and Baker withdrew from the race fairly early.

Baker then campaigned to be Reagan’s running mate. But Reagan chose Bush, instead.

Baker’s political career was far from over, however. In fact, it was just getting started.

In 1981, Baker became the Senate Majority Leader, and that’s where his greatest influence began. As the top lawmaker in the U.S. Senate, Baker was known to force feuding legislators into a room and keeping them there until they could iron out their differences and achieve compromise.

After Reagan pushed through much of his legislative agenda in his first year in office, he had high praise for Baker’s role in the Senate: “I’m frank to say that I don’t think we could have had the successes that we’ve had up there without his leadership,” the president said.

The New York Times wrote in 1982 that “there is basic agreement among both his friends and foes in the Senate that Mr. Baker last year compiled one of the most extraordinary records in the history of that body.”

The Republicans might have had control of both the executive and legislative branches in 1981, but their Senate majority was a frail one. It took a man well-schooled in the art of compromise to not only keep the Republicans in sync but to pull in enough Democrat support to make sure things got accomplished. Baker did that. Senator Jim Sasser, Baker’s Democratic colleague from Tennessee, said that Baker was “a genius at finding the compromise point and pushing it through.”

It was Baker’s qualities of conciliation and compromise that caused Reagan to reach out to him during his second term in the White House. He had passed over Baker as vice president in 1980, but now he needed the Senator’s help. Although Reagan was proving to be one of the most popular presidents in American history and had won re-election in 1984 by a monumental landslide, his administration was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal and relations had soured between the White House and Congress.

Baker was mulling another run for the presidency in 1988, when he would have almost certainly have been opposed in the primary campaign by Vice President George H.W. Bush. Given the trajectory of Reagan’s second term, it’s reasonable — if not likely — that Bush’s own presidential hopes would’ve been torpedoed if something hadn’t happened to reverse the course.

With that in mind, Baker’s personal ambitions might have been well-served if he had opted to stay put as the Senate’s top Republican. But he gave up his ambition to be president in order to serve in the Reagan White House, as the president’s chief of staff. “When the President asked me to serve him I was glad,” he later said.

And, once again, the Great Conciliator demonstrated his worth in the art of compromise. His predecessor, Donald T. Regan, had alienated Congress and clashed with the first lady, Nancy Reagan. Baker was able to mend fences, improving relations between the White House and Congress, and he helped Reagan get the flailing presidency back on track.

In doing so, Baker once again proved that he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. Conservative advisors to Reagan complained that Baker was too accommodating to Democrats in Congress. And, in 1987, when Reagan’s choice for the U.S. Supreme Court — Robert H. Bork — was rejected by the Senate, Baker urged the president to choose a less polarizing figure the second time around so that he wouldn’t risk further embarrassment. Baker suggested Anthony Kennedy. Reagan instead listened to conservative advisors and chose Douglas Ginsburg, who was considered more of a hard-liner for right wing ideology. But Ginsburg’s candidacy collapsed after it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana in his youth, and Baker’s pick of Judge Kennedy wound up on the Supreme Court, after all.

In a round-about way, Baker won that Supreme Court fight. But the battle had perhaps left him weary. Even after he had abandoned his own presidential ambitions and helped Reagan steady the ship and resurrect what had once seemed to be a troublesome second term in office, the president was listening to the advice of his conservative counsel rather than his middle-of-the-road chief of staff. After saying he would stay at the White House until the end of Reagan’s term in early 1989, Baker resigned in early 1988. His political career was over.

In latter years, Baker joined Dole and Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle to found the Bipartisan Policy Center, which promotes bipartisan solutions to problems facing America. Even to the end, Baker was more interested in working with “the other side” for the common good of the nation than he was in toeing a line in the sand based on conservative-versus-liberal ideology.

A version of this article first appeared in the Independent Herald.

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