Howard Baker rose to prominence during the Watergate hearings. Over his career, Baker ran for president, was considered for vice president, served on the Watergate Committee, as White House Chief of Staff, and Ambassador to Japan. He earned the reputation as fair-minded and bipartisan. Colleagues dubbed Baker “the great conciliator” for his efforts to build and mend bridges.
Baker began his political career in 1964. He lost his Senate bid that year, but returned two years later to capture one of Tennessee’s seats. The Tennessee native remained in the Senate for the next two decades. By the early seventies, Baker had become influential within the Republican Party. He ran twice for minority leader, but lost. President Nixon wanted to nominate him to the Supreme Court, but Baker took too long to except. In the end, William Rehnquist earned the slot.
The Watergate Scandal exploded in Nixon’s second term. The Senate established a committee chaired by Sam Ervin to investigate. Baker served as the ranking member and rose to national acclaim when he asked a witness, "What did the President know and when did he know it?" This question proved indicative of Baker’s personality. The Senator was honest and willing to work with the other side to do what was right.
Nixon did not survive Watergate, but Baker became a national figure. In 1976, many believed Baker would become President Gerald Ford’s running mate. However, Ford surprised many when he selected Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Dole served as a hatchet man for the Ford campaign, which might be the reason Baker was not chosen. While Dole seemed to relish the attack dog role, the job might not have fit Baker’s personality.
Despite losing the spot on the ticket to Dole, Senate Republicans rewarded the Tennessean by electing him to the position of Minority Leader. Baker served in that capacity from 1977-1981. When the G.O.P. captured the Senate in 1980, Baker became Majority Leader. He remained in the position until he retired in 1985. Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Baker earned the reputation for honesty and his ability to work a deal. He became known as “the Great Conciliator.”
His Senate duties prevented Baker from running a true presidential campaign in 1980. He entered the race, but performed poorly in the early races. Baker was too busy working to campaign. As a result, he dropped out of the race to concentrate on his duties. Eventually, Reagan won the nomination and the presidency. In 1984, President Reagan presented Baker with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many speculated Baker might return to run for president in 1988. However, he returned to Washington before that presidential campaign.
The Democrats recaptured the Senate in 1986. President Reagan wanted to mend fences with the opposition and turned to Baker. The president’s Chief of Staff Don Regan angered and alienated many in both parties with his imperious style and pompous attitude. Reagan tapped Baker to replace Regan. The new chief of staff lacked all of Regan's negative personality traits and had long standing relationships with members of congress.
Baker served as Chief of Staff from February 1987 through July 1988. Afterward, the former senator entered private life. In 2001, he returned from the Wilderness to serve as Ambassador to Japan. Baker retired from the post in early 2005. Two years later, he teamed with Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, and George Mitchell to found the Bipartisan Policy Center. He passed away on June 26, 2014 after suffering a stroke.
Senator Howard Baker enjoyed a successful political career. Tennessee elected Baker in 1966 and he remained a fixture and power broker for two decades. Watergate brought Baker to the forefront of Washington politics. He served as Minority and Majority Leader and then as White House Chief of Staff. Baker capped his career as Ambassador to Japan. Fittingly, he worked to found the Bipartisan Policy Center. In the end, Howard Baker was “the Great Conciliator.”