Ex-Sen. Baker remembered for crossing the aisle

photo The body of late U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., lays in repose Monday, June 30, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. Paying their respects are grandson Daniel Baker, left, son Darek Baker, daughter Cynthia "Cissy" Baker, and former Kansas U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, Baker's widow. The funeral for Baker, who died June 26 at age 88, will be held Tuesday in his hometown of Huntsville, Tenn. (AP Photo, Paul Efird/Knoxville News Sentinel)

ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. was remembered Tuesday for his ability to bridge political divides in Washington while also establishing the Republican Party as a statewide force in Tennessee.

The Republican's 18-year tenure in the Senate drew accolades from both sides of the aisle. Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, is known for cutting to the core of the 1973 Watergate hearings when he asked of then-President Richard Nixon: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander eulogized his former boss at a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church in the former Senate majority leader's rural hometown of Huntsville on the Cumberland Plateau near the Kentucky state line.

Alexander described Baker as an "eloquent listener" and "the great conciliator" for his ability to gather disputing senators into a room, listen for a while, "then his summary of the discussion would become the senators' agreement."

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts that stuck throughout a long political career. Besides Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985, he later became chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP's elder statesmen.

Vice President Joe Biden, who attended the service, said in an op-ed in the Knoxville News Sentinel, "He was honorable, he was tough, and he was fair - traits that served him well as he took on two of the most challenging jobs in Washington."

Dignitaries attending the funeral included former Vice President Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

As for Baker's skillful listening, Alexander recalled statements Baker made in 2011.

"There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say," he quoted Baker. "You don't have to agree, but you have to hear what they've got to say. And if you do, the chances are much better you'll be able to translate that into a useful position and even useful leadership."

Alexander noted that when Baker was first elected to the Senate, Republicans had largely been confined to the eastern part of the state. He lauded Baker's ability to spot talent, like his former Watergate aide Fred Thompson, whom Alexander eventually succeeded in the Senate.

Baker was to be buried next to his first wife, Joy Dirksen Baker, in a cemetery a few hundred feet from the home he was born. Three years after the death of his first wife from cancer in 1993, Baker married Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who was about to retire from the Senate after serving three terms. It was the first time two people who had served in the Senate had gotten married.

Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican, remembered Baker first giving him the opportunity to speak at a rally toward the end of Baker's first successful election to the Senate. He said he has tried to emulate

"To me his legacy is he was the champion of civility in politics," he said. "Today we have too many people on both sides who are angry. There's a lot of good people on both sides in these political battles, and always thought you could express you opinions without attacking people."

Baker died June 26.