Former Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker passed away today of complications from a stroke. He was 88.
Baker made history in 1966 when he became the first Republican elected to the Senate from Tennessee since Renconstruction. He would become a nationally known figure during the Watergate Hearings when he asked John Dean, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Interestingly, two years earlier, President Nixon had offered Baker a seat on the Supreme Court following the retirement of John Marshall Harlan II. However, Baker was not forthcoming with a reply and Nixon instead appointed William Rehnquist who would later become Chief Justice. Imagine how different late 20th Century American history might have been had Baker accepted Nixon’s offer.
Baker was on Gerald Ford’s shortlist to be his running mate in 1976, but Ford opted for Bob Dole. Instead, Baker became Senate Minority Leader following Jimmy Carter’s election.
In 1979, Baker sought the GOP presidential nomination for the 1980 election. But Baker would drop out after finishing a distant third in both the Iowa Caucus and the New Hamphire Primary.
Baker instead became Senate Majority Leader when the GOP took control of the Senate the night Ronald Reagan defeated Carter. After four years as Senate Majority Leader, Baker opted not to run for a fourth term. President Reagan would bestow Baker with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of course, it would not be the last time Reagan and Baker crossed paths.
In the wake of Reagan’s declining popularity following the Iran-Contra scandal, Baker was asked to replace Don Regan as White House Chief of Staff. Baker’s reassurance presence helped to right the ship and Reagan left office as one of the most popular Presidents in this country’s history.
Baker largely kept a low profile over the past quarter century although he was appointed by President George W. Bush to be Ambassador to Japan in 2001 and would remain at that post until early 2005.
Although Baker was certainly not the most conservative Republican of his era, he was certainly among the most competent, conscientious and was consistently able to inspire public confidence. These qualities that Howard Baker brought to public service should be a model for conservatives who are presently serving in elected office as well as for conservatives who seek elected office.