The Voice of Reason: Remembering Senator Howard Baker

Jul 1, 2014

Portrait of Senator Howard Baker
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Former Senate Majority Leader and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker died last Thursday at age 88. Baker was one of the key players in Ronald Reagan's historic tax and spending cuts and was an influential member of the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. He served as US Senator from Tennessee from 1967 to 1985 and Commentator and History Professor Dr. Brian Clardy remembers the Republican Senator as a voice of reason in the later half of the 20th Century.

The Voice of Reason: Remembering Senator Howard Baker

By Dr. Brian K. Clardy

Senator Howard Baker’s death a few days ago has put me in a very nostalgic space as I remember his kind and courtly demeanor, command of policy facts, knowledge of the law, and his homespun gentility. 

He was in the United States Senate from the time of my birth to my senior year at South Fulton High School.........and to me, he was larger than life.

Most of the members of my family were Democrats and voted the Democratic ticket in most elections. But except for the occasional policy disagreement, I don’t ever recall an awful or ugly word said about Senator Baker around our dinner table, living room, or social setting. There was a reason for that: we all knew that Senator Baker stood up for Tennessee. It wasn’t so much that he “brought home the bacon”......which he did.............and LOTS of it...........but we all knew that if someone had a problem that demanded national government action, that Senator Baker’s office was one phone call away.....or one stamp and letter. And that he would be responsive to that complaint, even if there wasn’t a ready answer to the issue.

I have several memories of Senator Baker, some of which I have thought about since his passing.

Senator Baker always spoke his mind.

His columns always appeared in the pages of the Fulton Daily Leader and the Union City Daily Messenger. He was clear, consistent, and staunch in his beliefs without being overbearing or pugnacious. You always knew where he stood on an issue, even if you personally disagreed. But when he wrote his articles and op-eds, he didn’t speak in exclusive language that cut off discussion or debate.

Senator Baker always came home.

He was always a visible part of the community and the state. He was never afraid to shake a hand.....look someone in the eye........share a word or two. And he always listened.

Senator Baker knew his way around public policy, and in a policy debate you could count on him to see the issue. 

As a child growing up in South Fulton, TN, I watched the Watergate Hearings on television (weird huh?) but I remember the question that he raised that was at the crux of the Scandal: What did the President know and when did he know it? It seemed is if that question was the quintessential legal question that would either acquit President Nixon or send him packing. That one question, raised by this brilliant East Tennessean was the overarching theme of any sensible inquiry into the Watergate matter.

Senator Baker knew how to build bridges bipartisanship.

The old (sometimes tired cliché) of “working across the aisle was true in Senator Baker’s case. It was genuine. He had a way of disagreeing without being a jerk and a way of forging compromise without being an ogre. 

And Senator Baker knew how best to manage a crisis.

In the darkest days of the Reagan Presidency, when the “I” word was floating around with increasing fervor during the Iran-Contra Scandal, Senator Baker answered his nation’s call again by coming out of retirement and serving as White House Chief of Staff. He put his policy and public relations panache to work to help bring together a fractured administration, and country in the midst of a potentially devastating political quandary. 

Call me melodramatic.....overly sentimental...........or worse (I’ll get over it)..............but today’s politicians in BOTH parties can benefit from Senator Baker’s example. That in the end, talking points, recriminations, raised voices and cynicism do not make for sound public policy. Instead, a calm demeanor, the pursuit of the national good, and the love of country (and of people) will be the best recipe for how to resolve crisis, foreign and domestic.

Well done, Senator. 

Rest in Peace.

Dr. Brian Clardy is an Associate Professor of History at Murray State University and is the host of Cafe Jazz, Wednesday nights on WKMS. 

The views expressed in this commentary don't necessarily reflect the views of the station.