Howard Baker Jr., who played key roles in Ronald Reagan’s presidency as legislative “spear-carrier” in the U.S. Senate during the administration’s triumphant first year, and as a steadying hand inside the White House during its troubled later years, has died. He was 88.
He died today at his home in Huntsville, Tennessee, according to John Tuck, a senior adviser in the Washington office of Baker Donelson, the law firm where he was senior counsel. The cause was complications from a stroke he suffered on June 21.
The namesake son of a seven-term congressman and son-in-law of Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, Baker represented Tennessee in the Senate for 18 years, rose to majority leader and ran for president before replacing Donald Regan as Reagan’s chief of staff.
His 17 months at the White House, from March 1987 to July 1988, came at a dark time for Reagan. His detached management style was under criticism in the wake of the Iran-contra affair, the secret effort to aid right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua with money raised by selling arms to Iran. Democrats had retaken control of the Senate, and Reagan’s recent prostate surgery had heightened concerns about his stamina.
Baker was credited with restoring order and purpose to the White House and helping to improve relations with a restive Congress. On Baker’s first day, Reagan wrote in his diary: “He’s going to be fine & there was a great feeling in the West Wing of improved morale.”
“More than any other single person, it was Howard Baker who brought Reagan back,” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon wrote.
Reagan’s widow, Nancy, said today in a statement that Baker “was one of Ronnie’s most valued advisers,” and she praised his “integrity and ability to create cooperation between the Congress and the White House.”
Known as a straight-shooter who valued civility, Baker had first made his name in Congress as the vice chairman and top-ranking Republican of the Senate committee that investigated Watergate. During the committee’s hearings, he articulated the question that became part of the American political lexicon: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
He became the Senate’s Republican leader during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter, and Reagan’s coattails in the 1980 election made him majority leader. Baker called himself Reagan’s “spear-carrier” and backed his plan to stimulate the economy through tax cuts, even while calling it “a riverboat gamble.”
He helped avert a Republican rebellion against $36 billion in cuts in Reagan’s first budget and helped win approval for Reagan’s much-criticized decision to sell AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
As time went on, he sided with lawmakers in drawing the line at more cuts in domestic programs. He went so far as to propose tax increases to pay for Reagan’s military buildup.
The stalemate over taxes, military spending and cuts in domestic programs, and the economic recession of 1981-1982, swelled the deficit during Reagan’s term, from $79 billion in 1981 to $155.2 billion in 1988.
Baker was known for his gentility and conciliation toward colleagues of both parties, a reputation that generated suspicion among hardcore Republicans, who didn’t warm to him when he ran for president.
“We are doing the business of the American people,” Baker said of his governing philosophy in a speech to members of Congress in 1998. “And if we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don’t like, we would soon stop functioning altogether.”
Howard Henry Baker Jr. was born on Nov. 15, 1925, in the Cumberland Mountains town of Huntsville, the first of two children of Howard Baker and the former Dora Ladd. Baker’s mother died when he was eight, and his maternal grandmother helped raise him and his sister.
Baker’s father, a politically active Republican lawyer, served in Tennessee’s state legislature and ran unsuccessfully for governor. He won a seat in the U.S. House in 1950 and served until his death in 1964.
Baker graduated from the McCallie School in Chattanooga in 1943 and joined the U.S. Navy, studying electrical engineering at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. With a law degree from the University of Tennessee, he joined the Huntsville law firm that his grandfather had started.
His 1951 marriage to Joy Dirksen brought Baker into the political arena. That year, Dirksen’s father, an Illinois Republican, joined the U.S. Senate following eight terms in the House of Representatives.
Baker lost his first bid for public office, a 1964 campaign to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Estes Kefauver. His victory in 1966 made him Tennessee’s first popularly elected Republican senator.
He was one month into his second term in 1973 when his Republican colleagues named him to the seven-member Senate committee on Watergate. As vice chairman, he worked closely with the Democratic chairman, Sam Ervin, and became known for the plain, pointed questions he composed with the help of his chief counsel, Fred D. Thompson, later a U.S. senator.
When former White House Counsel John Dean came before the committee, Baker told him: “The central question is simply put: What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Baker would reiterate that question throughout the committee’s three months of public hearings.
Baker told the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 2005 that he had entered the hearings “absolutely convinced that the whole thing was a Democratic dirty trick to embarrass Nixon.” He went so far as to promise Nixon he would keep the inquiry from overstepping its bounds.
In the end, working with Ervin to produce a bipartisan report, Baker made good on his pledge to “let the chips fall where they may,” J. Lee Annis Jr. wrote in his 1995 biography of Baker.
Nixon’s resignation in 1974 elevated Gerald Ford to the presidency and seemed to put Baker in prime position to be Ford’s vice presidential running mate in 1976. Ford instead picked Kansas Senator Robert Dole.
Baker engineered a one-vote victory to become Senate minority leader in 1977. He worked with the Carter administration to win passage of the treaties that transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama after 1999. Many conservatives chafed at Baker’s support for the handover.
He declared his candidacy for president in 1979 and was viewed as a leading contender for the nomination to challenge Carter. After third-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Baker became the first high-profile candidate to drop out.
Reagan’s huge victory over Carter that fall carried enough Republicans into the Senate to create the first GOP majority since 1954, and Baker became majority leader.
While backing much of Reagan’s early economic agenda, Baker resisted calls from more conservative members of his caucus to move legislation to ban abortion or require prayers in schools. Baker said he personally opposed abortion but considered it ultimately a private matter.
Baker retired from the Senate at the end of his third term in 1984 and began contemplating another campaign for president. He was still undecided about a presidential bid when, in February 1987, Reagan fired Regan as his chief of staff and gave the job to Baker, who, Cannon wrote, helped restore a “sense of normalcy” in the White House.
Kenneth Duberstein, Baker’s deputy, succeeded him as Reagan’s fourth and final chief of staff when Baker stepped down in July 1988, six months before Reagan left office.
Baker’s final call to government service came in 2001, when President George W. Bush named him ambassador to Japan. Baker held the post until 2005.
He worked in the Washington and Huntsville offices of the law firm his grandfather founded in 1888; its official name today is Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. An avid photographer, he published his images in books including “Howard Baker’s Washington” (1984).
Baker was married to Joy Dirksen from 1951 until her death, of cancer, in 1993. They had a son, Darek, and a daughter, Cissy, who has worked as a journalist in Washington. In 1996, Baker married Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican who represented Kansas in the Senate from 1978 to 1997. He also is survived by four grandsons.
The University of Tennessee opened the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2003. The entrance to the Republican leader’s suite in the U.S. Capitol was named the Howard H. Baker Jr. Room in 1985.