Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Republican senator from Tennessee, died last week at his home in Huntsville, Tenn., at age 88. He was most famous for a question he asked of witnesses during the 1973 Watergate hearings: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
But for those who served with him, Baker was known as an expert at finding solutions. Vice President Joe Biden served six terms in the Senate representing Delaware, and he wrote this appreciation for his friend and former colleague, which appeared Tuesday in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
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President Harry Truman once said, “It’s understanding that gives us the ability to have peace. When you understand the other fellow’s viewpoint, and he understands ours, then you can sit down and you can work out your differences.”
That describes my good friend Howard Baker perfectly. Howard and I worked and traveled together over many years, and I admired his tremendous wisdom and integrity. He was honorable, he was tough, and he was fair — traits that served him well as he took on two of the most challenging jobs in Washington, Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff.
But let me tell you what I remember best about Howard: his inexorable quest for finding a solution. Seeking middle ground was more than a strategic imperative for Howard, it was his first instinct. He had an ability to put himself in the other person’s shoes that compelled you to trust him. That’s a gift in short supply in present-day Washington. But it’s how you get things done.
I watched Howard deliver ambitious, consequential bills time and time again. He teamed up with Sen. Ed Muskie to pass the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. He risked his career to pass the Panama Canal Treaty. I loved Howard’s response when his aides warned that supporting the treaty meant forfeiting his presidential chances. “So be it,” Howard snapped, according to Adam Clymer’s book about the canal.
And his wife, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, is cut from the same cloth. It was an honor to work with her during the 1990 budget summit. Both Nancy and Howard were always able to generate bipartisan consensus without sacrificing their principals and ideals.
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Talent perceives differences. Genius, unity.” Howard was the kind of genius who could find unity in the moments of deepest division.
In 1973, when he served on the Watergate Committee, Howard played a critical role in restoring confidence in government. I was a young senator at the time, and the absolute consensus between Republicans and Democrats that Howard should serve as the committee’s ranking Republican member left a deep impression on me. Nobody questioned his commitment to the Constitution. What everyone said was, “Howard will do the right thing.”
In 1987, Howard was enjoying life in the private sector when President Ronald Reagan, on the ropes after the Iran-Contra affair, enlisted him as chief of staff to refocus the White House for what turned out to be a productive final two years.
I’ll always remember one classic moment when we worked together on the judicial nomination process. Imagine the scene: Judge Robert Bork had just been defeated in the Senate. Another Reagan nominee had been sent up and withdrawn. The president had every reason to be frustrated with the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Instead, at Howard’s urging, Reagan called me into the Oval Office to review a list of possible new appointments. “I want to hear this from your perspective,” the president said to me.
We reviewed the names, and the president sent up a nominee who I thought would be confirmed. And that’s just what happened. I’m sure the meeting was Howard’s idea. It was one of countless moments in his career when he brought the right people together in the right room to find a path forward.
The 19th-century British poet and historian Thomas Macaulay must have had Howard Baker in mind when he said, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.”
Working with Howard, and learning from him, was one of the best experiences of the 36 years I served in the United States Senate.
To read the Knoxville News Sentinel's obituary of Howard Baker, click here.