Baker's career one many others should emulate

July 2, 2014 

Tuesday might be remembered as a day that saw the most sincerely bipartisan gathering of American politicians in recent history.

Probably to nobody's surprise, it didn't happen in Washington. It happened in the little community of Huntsville, Tenn., where former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker was laid to rest after his passing a week ago today at age 88.

Tributes to the longtime Republican lawmaker, who was Senate majority leader during President Ronald Reagan's first term and later served as Reagan's chief of staff, sounded a nostalgic, even wistful note.

As well they might. Because Howard Baker was a throwback to a style of high-powered politics that still found a place not just for the seemingly lost virtue of simple civility, but for true collegiality.

As a prominent member of the Senate committee investigating the shenanigans of the Nixon administration that would fall under the umbrella of Watergate, Baker made forever famous the investigation's central question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

But it is as a forger of coalitions that got things done that Baker will be, and deserves to be, best remembered.

Vice President Joe Biden, an across-the-aisle Baker colleague in the Senate, said in an op-ed he wrote for the Knoxville News-Sentinel that his old friend "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."

Known as "The Great Conciliator," Baker was remembered by his onetime aide, fellow Tennesseean and now Senator Lamar Alexander as "an eloquent listener," and Alexander shared something the retired Baker told him just three years ago: "There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say … You don't have to agree, but you have to hear what they've got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you'll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership."

Yet Baker did not shy from conflict when principle demanded it of him, regardless of potential political liabilities. He bucked the party line in supporting the Panama Canal treaty -- a stance for which some Republicans demanded he resign his leadership post -- and he angered many Southerners with his approval of Civil Rights legislation passed shortly before he was elected to the Senate in 1966.

Alexander drew a laugh from the crowd gathered in tribute to Baker when he said the late lawmaker had confessed to two things he didn't understand: "One was the Middle East, and one was the United States House of Representatives."

It's too easy, in this era of epidemic political road rage, to romanticize the politics of years gone by as somehow more elevated. Politics was never all about sweetness and light. But as an example of the difference between a politician and a statesman, Howard Baker was the real deal.

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