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.