published Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Abshire: Baker’s legacy reaches far beyond politics

David Abshire

The passing of Howard Baker allows us to reflect on the immense quality of his contributions. Never before has a senator been so multifaceted and so skilled in overall leadership. My words should have greater credibility; as a graduate of the Baylor School, I am saluting the rival McCallie School's greatest student ever!

Howard Baker was born and bred an East Tennessee Republican, son of a longtime Congressman from Huntsville. I first came across Howard Baker in 1970, when I was assistant secretary of state dealing with Congress. Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky confided in me: "Watch young Howard Baker. He should be the next Republican leader." Cooper's prediction unsurprisingly came true in 1976.

In the Senate, Baker sought practical compromises. Baker never looked for credit, and he left his ego behind. At a time when Congress seems broken and deadlocked, Baker navigated through the political turmoil of Watergate and the 1970s. He empowered his committee chairmen -- a far cry from the methods of today's congressional leadership.

Our paths crossed at a critical time in the Reagan presidency, during the Iran Contra scandal. As he recovered from the crisis, Reagan was rightly convinced that Howard Baker was another key person to bolster the president's credibility.

When President Reagan tried to phone Howard Baker, who was vacationing in Florida, to ask him to be his new chief of staff, he reached Baker's wife, Joy. She explained that Howard was at the zoo with his grandchildren. "Well, tell him I need him because we've got a zoo up here," quipped the president.

If one had to invent the perfect model of a chief of staff at this moment in presidential history, Baker would fit. In sharp contrast to the brisk and authoritative style of the previous Reagan White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, the easygoing but shrewd Baker brought a modest and homespun, collaborative manner to the office.

In an op-ed to the Times Free Press in 2001, "Howard Baker: The Right Man at the Right Time," Max Angerholzer and I also described the importance of Howard Baker's appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. At the time, it seemed that the United States had turned its attention away from Japan. The very fact that Howard Baker assumed that post -- one also held by the former speaker of the House Tom Foley and Vice President Walter Mondale -- did much to show U.S. respect for the vital relationship with Japan.

Thus, Howard Baker's accomplishments are to be enshrined with the long line of great Tennessee lawmakers. His accomplishments will serve as lessons for Tennessee leaders present and future, notably the current Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, who served as Baker's legislative assistant.

Dr. David M. Abshire, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, serves as vice chairman of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.

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