Sen. Howard Baker Jr. was often called the “Great Conciliator.” He earned the nickname because of his prodigal ability to mediate differences and build alliances across political party boundaries. Baker died this week at his home in Huntsville, Tenn. He was 88 years old.
Baker’s political career spanned decades and included many different roles. He served 18 years in the U.S. Senate starting in 1966, when he became the first Republican to be popularly elected to that body from Tennessee. Baker was also chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, an envoy to Russia under President George H. W. Bush and a U.S. ambassador to Japan in President George W. Bush’s administration.
Baker came close to garnering the Republican nomination for the vice presidency in 1980, but that honor eventually went to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. He went on to become the Senate majority leader when the Republicans took control of that body after the 1980 election.
Baker was widely admired by his colleagues and pundits alike. In 1984, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
His demeanor and tact were inspirational to many future political figures. Fellow Tennessean, Sen. Lamar Alexander, began as one of Baker’s legislative aides. Alexander told reporters for the Tennessean newspaper: “No one has had more of an impact on my life, outside of my own family, than Howard Baker. He stands as a great example for all of us who are a part of public service.”
President Barack Obama also spoke fondly of Baker in a White House press release: “It was his ability to broker compromise and his unofficial role as the ‘Great Conciliator’ that won him admirers across party lines, over multiple generations, and beyond the state he called home.”
Perhaps nowhere did we see Baker’s evenhandedness more clearly than in his capacity as vice-chairman of the special committee that investigated the Watergate scandal in 1973. Baker’s efforts helped clarify President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the affair, and in the estimation of many, he helped transform the investigation into a broad shakeup of Washington politics.
During one of those hearings, Baker posed a question that continues to resonate four decades later: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Not only did Baker’s effort help reveal the misdeeds of the Nixon White House, they also showed the power of bipartisan action in the face of divisive controversy.
Sadly this kind of cooperative spirit is lacking in politics today. With rare exception, any official who dares to vote across party lines is often derided as weak or worse, as a traitor.
This narrow mindset is billed as ideological consistency, but it is little more than dogmatic pandering. While the American public certainly appears to want readily digestible public policy— framed either in red or blue — the near prohibition on nuance and compromise paints us a simpletons, unable to understand complex issues with no easy solution.
In this fractious environment of hyper-partisanship, the Howard Bakers of the world would likely gain little traction. Baker and his kind are not wishy-washy or devoid of principle. Rather, they understand that the craft of good government doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Moderate voices like Baker’s understand that for “us” to win doesn’t mean “they” have to lose.
As hard as Baker worked for mutual uplifting, the modern politics of division works against us all. We hope history will remember Baker well — and give him a worthy successor.