Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Great Conciliator: Howard Baker 1925 - 2014

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. – Former Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN)
In the fall of 1980, I had the good fortune to participate with 100 or so college students from around the country in the Washington Semester program at American University. A presidential election year, Washington was abuzz with excitement and activity; the campus frequented by dignitaries and speakers of varied political perspectives. I attended talks and speeches by a wide assortment of personalities, from Abbie Hoffman to Henry Kissinger. I listened to Senators and Congressmen, journalists and presidential contenders, and other politically oriented, opinionated speakers who challenged, provoked and, at times, upset me. But always, the talks were interesting and thought provoking.

One speech in particular I remember that Fall was by then Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee. As he stood behind a podium at an outdoor amphitheater in front of a large crowd on a warm September evening, Baker exemplified Establishment grace and charm. I could see why my Republican friends had wanted me to hear him and why he was known as “The Great Conciliator” during his years in the U.S. Senate. A soft-spoken Tennessee lawyer, he possessed an inherent reasonableness and seemed to get along with everyone.

Baker died last week at the age of 88. The country will miss his serious intellect, courteous demeanor, and reasoned approach to politics and problem solving. A self-described “moderate to moderate conservative,” Baker was a centrist Republican who combined fiscal prudence with social and foreign policy moderation. He was also, according to a New York Times obituary, “[f]riendly and unfailingly courteous . . . popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.”

Born into a modest Presbyterian family, Baker was the son of a lawyer and Congressman. After serving in the Navy during World War II and studying law at the University of Tennessee, he was eventually schooled in the art of politics by his father-in-law, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen exemplified the centrist Republican tradition of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and played a crucial role in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by delivering 27 Republican votes to help Lyndon Johnson defeat a Southern filibuster that threatened to permanently block that historic bill. In 1967, Baker joined Dirksen in the Senate, becoming the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. For the next 18 years, Baker served with professionalism and integrity and won the respect and admiration of the press, the public, and members of both political parties.

Baker had conservative instincts and strong opinions, but he believed in the common good. He put the needs of the country first, over party affiliation and ideological purity. As a member of the public works committee, Baker worked closely with liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans in drafting the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, fair housing and voting rights legislation, and willingly promoted bipartisan efforts to enact laws that he believed benefited all Americans, even if opposed by the more conservative elements of his party.

I can still remember Baker’s calm, lawyerly manner during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, which impressed me even as a young teenager. It was Baker who asked the famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” When Nixon’s role in the cover-up became clear, Baker did not hesitate in elevating the interests of the nation ahead of partisanship. He presided over the hearings with patience and equanimity under intense political pressure from many diverse factions, and he ensured the bipartisan nature of the Committee’s investigation

In 1978, Baker supported the Panama Canal Treaty over the vociferous opposition of veterans groups, conservatives, and many others who felt that relinquishing the canal represented a decline in American power and a weakening of our strategic assets. Baker recognized that maintaining American hegemony over the 48-mile canal was akin to colonialism and that ceding the property back to Panama was the right thing to do. He worked with an unpopular Democratic president and helped secure the support of enough Republican senators to achieve the 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty. It was an act of political courage when the easy thing to do would have been to appease the ideological loyalists of his party.

Although he regularly appeared on the morning talk shows to advocate Republican causes with which I passionately disagreed, I found it hard to dislike Baker. Despite his Establishment pedigree, he reminded me of some of my friends at Wittenberg University in southern Ohio. He played tennis and golf and was an avid photographer. He was professional and courteous and rarely displayed anger or bitterness. He understood that there were two sides to an argument and did not personally attack or demonize his opponents.

Baker was an “eloquent listener,” wrote the National Journal, “open to what others said – a trait he lamented as lacking in today’s polarized capital.” Concerned by the growing political divide in the United States, in recent years he was troubled by the forces of ideological extremism so prevalent in political life today. In 2007, Baker co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center with former Senators Bob Dole (R-KS), George Mitchell (D-ME), and Tom Daschle (D-SD). Together they promoted bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, the kinds of compromises skillfully forged in their own careers.

Baker believed in the concept of the citizen-legislator; he understood the value of conviction, but also of taking counsel, listening to one’s constituents and adversaries, and allowing for thoughtful consideration. "What really makes the Senate work,” said Baker, “is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the hearts as well as the minds, the frailties as well as the strengths, of one's colleagues and one's constituents."

I often wonder lately if the present lack of reasoned political dialogue and compromise is a reflection of a broader change in American society, a historic shifting in the manner in which we obtain information and form opinions. Baker served at a time when most Americans operated under the same set of facts and got their news from essentially the same sources. From around 1950 to 1990, most Americans watched one of three television networks, read the same newspapers and weekly news magazines, and listened to the same radio programs. We argued then, like we do now, over the proper direction of our country, but not over basic facts. We debated the amounts we should spend on certain government programs, on defense and social programs, how much we should regulate businesses, tax rates and budgets, and the proper level of welfare and redistribution. But our arguments seemed more civil and were premised on the fundamental belief that liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, while differing widely on how to solve the nation’s problems, did not question the good faith of the other side’s intentions. Such is not the case today and Baker was saddened by this. He tried to correct it until the day he died.

I am confident that someday we will look back at this time in history and recognize that the extreme ideological battles over national health care, climate change, and the minimum wage, and the right-wing obstructionism that seeks to block even routine presidential appointments to the federal bench and regulatory agencies and fights everything the president does, will be considered an anomaly, a dark point in American political history, when reason and compromise lost out to ideological extremism.

“All government,” wrote Edmund Burke, “indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” Like Burke, Baker understood that we live in a nation of diverse peoples and beliefs with competing interests. He knew that politics by necessity involved a certain amount of bargaining and that, at the end of the day, we are all Americans; and that it served no purpose to hate your opponents or to reject the good faith of their intentions.

Howard Baker was a kind and gracious man who loved his country and worked until the end to make it better. He was indeed a citizen-legislator, an eloquent listener, and a great conciliator. He will be sorely missed.


  1. Mark,

    A good essay marred with your misrepresentation, again, of the history of political discourse in this country, and your insistence, again, that less information is better than more. I addressed the latter in your essay, “A Reflection on Our Times,” and even though I countered the former with an hilarious history lesson in your “American Demagogues and the Decline of Civility” post, I will nevertheless try again. You might recall that my first example was set in 1802 and contained the brutally funny putdown of John Adams as a,“hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Now we move to 1835 and what Congressman Waddy Thompson, Jr. said about abolitionists: “Who is it in the North that we are to conciliate? The fanatics? Fanatics, did I say, sir? Never before was so vile a band dignified with that name. They are murderers, foul murderers, accessories before the fact, and they know it, of murder, robbery, rape, infanticide.” Another congressman, James Henry Hammond, upped the rhetoric: “And I warn the abolitionists, ignorant, infatuated, barbarians as they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands he may expect a felon’s death.” (“Arguing About Slavery,” by William Lee Miller)

    Now I wouldn’t even know where to begin to refute the idea that political discourse was more civil between 1950 and 1990 than it is today. I could write ten thousand words in a few hours just cataloging the liberal abuse heaped upon poor Ronnie Reagan. But I will settle for an answer to a question: Where is the Democratic Party’s version of Howard Baker today asking, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?”?

    Rich R.

  2. Rich,

    I do not disagree with your historical point, which is that a lack of civility has at times infected our political discourse since the days of America’s founding. The primary difference nowadays, of course, is that everything gets so magnified by a media that sees politics more as entertainment than news.

    Nevertheless, my disagreement has to do with the level of obstructionism that exists in today’s political divide – particularly since Obama became President, although it dates back to when Republicans became a minority in the Senate, which is when the filibuster became their favorite weapon.

    Compare Baker’s actions and statements to what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And there are many more examples of this, but as Baker, Dole, Daschle, and Mitchell, among others have clearly discerned, there is a distinct lack of cooperation and comity between the parties these days that is not good for the country.

    McConnell has presided over a record-setting use of the filibuster to block legislation, judicial nominees, other federal appointments (including Ambassadorships), and the Republicans have developed a strategy of opposing all efforts to raise the U.S. debt ceiling (even though President Reagan asked for this, and got it, 17 times during his two terms), all in an unsuccessful attempt to see that Obama would be a one-term president. The House Republicans have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act over 50 times, which has been a little over-the-top. And the same Republicans who demanded an "up or down vote" for President Bush's selections to the federal bench have blocked Obama's choices at a record rate.

    Non-cooperation in American politics has been trending upward. Threatened or actual filibusters in the 1960’s affected only 8% of major legislation. That rose to 27% in the 1980s and, after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it rose to 70%. Both sides have some legitimate complaints and the process has always been hard fought – that is the way politics is and, I suspect, always will be. But there does appear to be fewer friends between Democrats and Republicans than when people like Baker were in the Senate. And the Republicans, more than the Democrats, in my opinion, has been the more obstructionist party, particularly during Obama’s presidency. I give them credit, though, for their political strategy has largely succeeded in preventing Obama and the Democrats from achieving their legislative agenda during the past 3-4 years. So, I tip my hat. But I still think it is bad for the country.