Baker, Howard Henry, 1925-2014

Hide Profile

Howard H. Baker Jr., former US senator whose ability to work with Democratic and Republican lawmakers earned him the nickname of “The Great Conciliator,” died on Thursday, June 26, 2014. He was eighty-eight. Baker earned his law degree from UT in 1949. The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at UT was founded in 2003 as a nonpartisan institute devoted to education and research concerning public policy and civic engagement. Baker received the university’s first honorary doctorate in spring 2005.

To many, Baker symbolized the civility and bipartisanship of a bygone political era, one where lawmakers from both parties set aside personal convictions and party ideology to work together in the public interest.

“For Senator Baker, principle was more important than politics in his work. It was about doing the right thing. I have a great appreciation for the role Senator Baker played in terms of his bipartisan approach to policy, as well as the demeanor he carried with him in debate. The words ‘civic engagement’ really do characterize his perspective on political discourse and how it should take place in this country,” said Matt Murray, director of the Baker Center.

Elected to the US Senate in 1966—and then re-elected in 1972 and 1978—Baker’s diplomatic style was instrumental in the passage of such bipartisan efforts as the Panama Canal Treaty, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. But his position as Senate minority leader, and later Senate majority leader, was anything but easy, and Baker famously commented that leading the Senate was like “herding cats.”

But Baker’s ability to work with politicians across the political spectrum impressed President Ronald Reagan enough for him to personally ask Baker to become his chief of staff in 1987, when goodwill between Congress and the White House was at a low point following the Iran-Contra scandal. Baker is credited with greatly repairing the relationship between the two branches.

Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born in Huntsville, Tennessee, on November 15, 1925. His father, Howard H. Baker Sr., served as a state representative and a district attorney general during Baker’s childhood. His mother, Dora Ladd Baker, died when Baker was a child; several years later, his father married Irene Bailey. From 1950 until his death in 1964, Howard Baker Sr. served in the US House of Representatives; when he died, Irene took his place and served out the rest of his term.

As a young man Baker showed little interest in pursuing a political career, planning instead to become a lawyer like his father and grandfather before him. After graduating from a military preparatory school in 1943, he enlisted in the US Navy as part of its V-12 officer training program. At the conclusion of his tenure in the navy, Baker earned his law degree.

In 1951, Baker married Joy Dirksen, the daughter of US Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

After helping run his father’s successful 1950 congressional campaign, Baker settled down to practice law, joining the law firm founded by his grandfather in 1888. But after the death of his father, Baker began to make forays into the political world. In 1964 he ran—albeit unsuccessfully— against Ross Bass to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator Estes Kefauver. But in 1966 he won the election for that same seat, marking the beginning of his three terms as US senator from Tennessee.

When he ran for re-election in 1972, Baker touted his friendship and close working relationship with President Richard Nixon. Thus, Baker found himself in an awkward position a year later when he became chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, also known as the Senate Watergate Committee. But despite his personal admiration for Nixon, Baker maintained impartiality and pressed for information during the hearings, asking the now famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” In the decades following Watergate, Baker maintained that he believed Nixon did not know about the break-in; however, Baker added that when Nixon did find out about the incident he failed to act appropriately.

Baker’s ability to place his civic duty above his personal convictions impressed his colleagues in the Senate, and he was elected Republican minority leader in 1977 and majority leader in 1981. As majority leader Baker brokered many complex deals between Congress and the White House, often garnering bipartisan support among his colleagues for compromises on issues like spending cuts and tax hikes.

Baker said that his ability to convince other senators to work with him mostly stemmed from his non-confrontational, friendly approach.

“One Republican senator was quoted as saying, when I went [to become White House chief of staff], ‘I don’t know how Baker got along so well with the Senate. All he ever did was get members in the cloakroom and tell them a funny story, and then they’d just do whatever it was he wanted.’ Which of course isn’t true, but it makes another point, which is that legislation and governance is a very personal matter. I believed in the personality of politics,” Baker stated.

Baker did not seek re-election in 1984. Murray noted that while Baker stayed true to his principles in the Senate, he did pay a “political price” for some of his efforts, such as the Panama Canal treaty and environmental legislation. But Baker’s great contributions to the country were recognized; in 1984 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Like Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal greatly damaged the public’s trust in the government, as well as Congress’s faith in the White House. When he assumed the position of chief of staff in 1987, Baker was facing a tense situation similar to the one he had weathered nearly fifteen years earlier. But he recalled that the president’s decision to hire him was largely based on his ability to get along with other lawmakers.

“I was well received. I suppose it signaled a new era. I believe that the relationship between Congress—especially the Senate—and the White House was significantly different, even after the year and a half I was there, from what it was in the beginning. There was an element of bipartisanship that I’d been involved with for years, because as Republican leader, or as minority leader for that matter, you’ve got to sort of bridge that chasm between the two sides. That bipartisan approach…seemed to go down well in the White House. The president, by the way, welcomed that,” Baker said.

Baker worked with Congress to further Reagan’s initiatives, but he did not automatically follow the president’s position on every issue. He disagreed with other White House and cabinet officials on the pullout of US warships from the Persian Gulf, and he voiced concerns about the administration’s decision to nominate Judge Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. But in 1988 Baker left his position in order to care for his wife, who later died of cancer. In 1996 Baker married former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum. In 2001, more than a decade after he left the White House, Baker returned to government service as US Ambassador to Japan. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Baker worked to strengthen diplomatic ties between the United States and its closest Pacific ally.

In later years, Baker’s thoughts turned to future generations and how they could continue the spirit of cooperation and civic duty that marked his political career.

Baker founded the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in 2003. The center is devoted to supporting scholarship and fostering dialogue on topics pertaining to current events, governance, policy, and citizenship. It sponsors lectures, classes, workshops, research, and student initiatives related to policy and politics, particularly in the areas of global security, leadership and governance, and energy and the environment. The center also houses the papers of many Tennessee politicians from the past century, including Baker, Kefauver, Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Harold Ford Jr., and Representative John J. Duncan.

In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney was present for the groundbreaking of the Baker Center building. On October 31, 2008, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor attended the dedication of the center’s stately facilities at 1640 Cumberland Avenue.

One of the final Baker Center events the senator attended was veteran journalist Tom Brokaw’s visit to campus on November 13, 2013—coinciding with Baker’s eighty-eighth birthday two days later.

Baker is survived by his wife; a son, Darek Baker of Brentwood, Tennessee; a daughter, Cynthia “Cissy” Baker of McLean, Virginia; two sisters; and four grandchildren.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Rhodes, John J. (John Jacob), 1916-2003. John J. Rhodes and Howard H. Baker, Jr. joint leadership papers, 1971-1980 (bulk 1977-1979. Arizona State University Libraries
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary. 1976 - 1981. Presidential Files. 1977 - 1981. 8/21/78
creatorOf Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott, 1978-1985. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Brooke, Edward William, 1919-. Papers, 1956-1988 (bulk 1963-1978). Library of Congress
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary. 1976 - 1981. Presidential Files. 1977 - 1981. 1/16/78
referencedIn James M. Cannon Papers University of Tennessee, Knoxville
creatorOf Howard H. Baker Jr. Papers First Addendum University of Tennessee, Knoxville
referencedIn 7/31/79, Sen. Howard Baker Press Conference (T-43033) Jimmy Carter Library
referencedIn Cooper, Lorraine Rowan, 1906-1985. Papers, 1936-1983 (inclusive). Harvard University, Schlesinger Library
referencedIn Morton, Thruston B. (Thruston Ballard), 1907-1982. Thruston B. Morton papers, 1933-1969, 1957-1961 (bulk dates). University of Kentucky Libraries
creatorOf The Howard H. Baker, Jr. Papers University of Tennessee, Knoxville
referencedIn Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott [manuscript], 1944-1981. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Papers, 1936-1983 Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary. 1976 - 1981. Presidential Files. 1977 - 1981. 5/2/78 [1]
creatorOf Records of the Office of the Chief of Staff (Reagan Administration). 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989. Howard Baker's Outgoing Correspondence Files
referencedIn Dunlop, Robert G. (Robert Galbraith), 1909-1995. Papers, 1947-1991. Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary. 1976 - 1981. Presidential Files. 1977 - 1981. 2/10/78 [2]
creatorOf Records of the Office of the Chief of Staff (Reagan Administration). 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989. Howard Baker's Congratulations Files
creatorOf Baker, Howard H. (Howard Henry), 1925-. Miscellaneous papers. Jacksonville University, Carl S. Swisher Library
referencedIn McBride, Robert Martin, 1918-. Papers, 1871-1983. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
referencedIn Liebengood, Howard S. (Howard Scholey), 1942-. Howard S. Liebengood papers, 1950-1982 (bulk 1973-1981). Library of Congress
creatorOf May, Daniel, 1898-1982. Papers, 1890-1982, bulk 1945-1974. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
creatorOf Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations (Nixon Administration). 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations. 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. Executive Office Building tape number 411
referencedIn Records of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) (Reagan Administration). 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989. White House Staff Audio Recordings
referencedIn Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations (Nixon Administration). 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations. 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. White House telephone tape number 12
referencedIn Edward William Brooke Papers, 1956-1988, (bulk 1963-1978) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Howard S. Liebengood Papers, 1950-1982, (bulk 1973-1981) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Boorstin, Daniel J. (Daniel Joseph), 1914-2004. Daniel J. Boorstin papers, 1882-1995 (bulk 1944-1994). Library of Congress
referencedIn Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott [manuscript], 1925-1979. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations (Nixon Administration). 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. Sound Recordings of Meetings and Telephone Conversations. 2/16/1971 - 7/18/1973. Cabinet Room tape number 90
referencedIn 7/14/81, Sandra Day O'Connor (T-29804) Jimmy Carter Library
referencedIn Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott, 1681-1987 (bulk 1917-1987) [manuscript]. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott [manuscript], 1922-1987 (bulk 1985-1987). University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Records of the Office of the Chief of Staff (Reagan Administration). 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989. Howard Baker's Public Opinion Poll Files
referencedIn Scott, Hugh, 1900-1994. Papers of Hugh Scott [manuscript], 1923-1984 bulk 1972-1984. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Greenewalt, Crawford H., 1902-1993. Personal papers, 1948-1992. Hagley Museum & Library
contributorOf 6/11/81, Senate Foreign Relations Committee--Israeli Bombing (T-29148) Jimmy Carter Library
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Staff Secretary. 1976 - 1981. Presidential Files. 1977 - 1981. 10/16/78
referencedIn Daniel J. Boorstin Papers, 1882-1995, (bulk 1944-1994) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
creatorOf Baker, Howard H. (Howard Henry), 1925-. Howard H. Baker presidential campaign in Iowa materials, 1980. State Historical Society of Iowa, Library
contributorOf 6/11/81, Senate Foreign Relations Committee--Israeli Bombing (T-48144) Jimmy Carter Library
contributorOf 6/5/81, Confirmation Hearing for Dr. Ernest LeFever (T-29092) Jimmy Carter Library
creatorOf Finding Aid for the Howard H. Baker Papers Second Addendum MPA.101.002 University of Tennessee, Knoxville
referencedIn Walker, Robert Kirk. Robert Kirk Walker papers, 1947-1980. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library
creatorOf Baker, Howard H. (Howard Henry), 1925-. Howard H. Baker : commercials , 1964-1980. University of Oklahoma, Political Community Archives
referencedIn Brooke, Edward William, 1919-. Edward William Brooke papers, 1956-1988 (bulk 1963-1978). Library of Congress
creatorOf John J. Rhodes And Howard H. Baker Jr. Joint Leadership Papers, 1971-1980. Arizona State University Libraries Arizona Collection
contributorOf 10/15/81, Senate Foreign Relations Committee--AWACS (T-30901) Jimmy Carter Library
creatorOf Anderson, Tom, 1910-. Papers, 1943-1986. University of Oregon Libraries, UO Libraries
creatorOf Records of the Office of the Chief of Staff (Reagan Administration). 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989. Howard Baker's Subject Files
referencedIn Smith, Hedrick. Hedrick Smith papers, 1923-1992 (bulk 1965-1990). Library of Congress
referencedIn Hedrick Smith Papers, 1923-1992, (bulk 1965-1990) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
creatorOf Liebengood, Howard S. (Howard Scholey), 1942-. Papers, 1950-1982 (bulk 1973-1981). Library of Congress
referencedIn Alderman, Edwin Anderson, 1861-1931. Commencement addresses at the University of Virginia, 1911-2006. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn 8/6/81, Pres. Anwar Sadat and Rep. Jim Wright (T-30123) Jimmy Carter Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Huntsville TN US
Huntsville TN US
District of Columbia DC US
Subject
Advertising, political
Primaries
Television advertising
Presidential candidates
Political Campaigns
Radio advertising
Occupation
Chief of Staff
Senators, U.S. Congress--Tennessee
Lawyers
Ambassadors--United States
Authors
Function

Person

Birth 1925-11-15

Death 2014-06-26

Male

Americans

English

Information

Permalink: http://n2t.net/ark:/99166/w60s02xp

Ark ID: w60s02xp

SNAC ID: 70761436