America - and especially Congress - needs more like Howard Baker

America - and especially Congress - needs more like Howard Baker

June 27th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker died Thursday at age 88.

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker died Thursday...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Tennessee and the nation lost a political legend Thursday when Howard Baker died at age 88.

He was known as "the Great Conciliator" -- and today's Congress could use more lawmakers of his ilk.

The Congress he prodded for 18 years to keep talking, working, cooperating and accomplishing things now seems in shambles, with members preoccupied with personal attacks and filled with partisan rancor.

Most Americans know Howard H. Baker Jr. for his Watergate-era question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Baker served as vice chairman, and thus leading Republican, on the Senate Committee probing the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic headquarters and ensuing cover-up by the Nixon administration. When it ended, he called the Watergate scandal "the greatest disillusionment" of his political career.

"I believed that it was a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing," Baker said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press. "But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked."

But Baker, a Huntsville, Tenn., native, was a pragmatist who "could make politics work" during a crisis. He became an adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush, a White House chief of staff, an ambassador to Japan and a presidential candidate. One biographer, J. Lee Annis, called Baker unique among politicians because he was prone to action rather than posturing.

Would that he could be in Washington today.

But even Baker, who served eight presidents, thought Congress had moved beyond reasonable limits of civility nearly a decade ago.

In 2005, when he returned to Tennessee after a stint as ambassador to Japan, Baker told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Congress could stand a bit of his advice on courtesy and respect.

"I think politics have changed, and we are more divisive today," Baker said. "There is common lack of civility in Congress and politics and the public arena."

In 2007, he said politics had become so uncivil it was hurting government: "I think politics has gotten so mean, so rash, so accusatory, that it's having a corrosive effect on the system of government," he said during the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.

Baker also knew -- really knew -- the value of inclusiveness, diversity and "big-tent" politics.

It wasn't an accident that he became first elected Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. In 1966, as a young lawyer and U.S. Senate candidate, he rode a Greyhound bus around the state every day but Sunday, stopping in Morristown, Memphis and everywhere in between. Beyond that, he did something unusual for a white Southerner in the 1960s: He opened headquarters in black areas of the state's largest cities and started campaign organizations at 80 percent of the state's colleges.

He lived by what he calls his Baker's Dozen, a list of life rules that included: listen more than you speak; have a genuine respect for differing points of view; tell the truth, whether you have to or not; be patient; and be civil.

It was Baker, along with fellow former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, and George Mitchell, who founded the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2007 as a think tank to develop policies suitable for bipartisan support. And it was Baker who became an advisory board member for the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to recreating the bipartisan center in American national security and foreign policy.

At the University of Tennessee's Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, set up in 2003 to honor him, students have a nonpartisan institute devoted to education and research concerning public policy and civic engagement.

Howard H. Baker Jr. was a great statesman.

Let us hope his spirit will imbue a few more just like him.