Howard H. Baker, Jr. (born 1925) served four terms in the United States Senate, including four years as minority leader and four years as majority leader. He was appointed the White House Chief of Staff by President Ronald Reagan.
Howard Henry Baker, Jr., served in the United States Senate for 18 years. He won the respect of his colleagues for his non-extremist views and his willingness to compromise. He distinguished himself as the Republican leader of the Senate for eight consecutive years: as minority leader for four years, (1977-81) and as majority leader for the next four years (1981-85). He retired from the Senate in 1985 and served as White House Chief of Staff under President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and 1988.
Born to Politics
Baker was born on November 15, 1925, in Huntsville, Tennessee. The Bakers were a politically active family. Baker's father, Howard Baker, Sr., served in the United States House of Representatives as a Republican from Tennessee from 1951-64. Baker's stepmother was also a Republican congresswoman, and Baker's grandfather was a judge.
Baker eventually married Joy Dirksen, the daughter of former Senate Minority leader Everett Dirksen. Baker was widowed in 1993 when Joy Baker died of cancer. In December of 1996 he married Nancy Kassebaum, a retired Republican Senator from Burdick, Kansas. The extended family of Baker and Kassebaum combined includes six children and 12 grandchildren.
Baker attended the University of the South (in Sewanee) and Tulane University. He enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve and was discharged as a Lieutenant, junior grade, after serving in World War II. He studied law at the University of Tennessee and earned an LL.B. in 1949.
Early Political Career
For 15 years Baker practiced law in Knoxville, Tennessee, and held other business and financial interests as well. He first ran for the United States Senate in 1964, on a conservative Republican platform, but he lost to a moderate Democratic opponent. He learned a lesson from the defeat and revised his stance to a more moderate platform before making his second attempt at the Senate in 1966.
This strategy worked. He won the 1966 senatorial election in Tennessee. He was the first Republican to be elected from that state since the Civil War. Additionally he earned the distinction as the first Republican Senator elected by popular vote in Tennessee.
Observers sometimes criticized his moderate political philosophies and suggested that he lacked decisiveness. In retrospect it is clear that despite Baker's moderate approach to politics, he demonstrated a consistent platform on each specific issue, and he upheld these policies throughout his career.
Baker's conservative views were evident in matters of the courts, and he strongly endorsed military spending and initiatives to strengthen the national defense.
On other issues he took a liberal standpoint. For example, he was known to back almost every civil rights legislation to come before the Senate, and he took a significant interest in environmental issues. As a member of the Senate Public Works Committee he was instrumental in developing clean air and water legislation in 1970 and again in 1972. The committee also championed the highway bill, a legislative initiative to foster mass transit. In keeping with his middle-of-the-road philosophy, and as a concession to industry, Baker supported the building of a natural gas pipeline between Alaska and the continental U.S. in the 1970s.
Baker disliked "big government." He was always a staunch supporter of any revenue sharing initiative that would force the federal government to allocate revenues to the states on a regular basis. He worked most diligently for revenue sharing until the passage of the Revenue Sharing Act of 1972.
In foreign affairs Baker threw his support behind Presidents Nixon and Ford during the 1970s. Baker was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He favored the development of anti-ballistic missiles (ABM), and the Trident missile program. While he opposed the withdrawal of troops from southeast Asia during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he sternly opposed the bombing of Cambodia and Laos in 1973.
Baker gained national recognition in 1973 as the co-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Activities. The committee was formed to investigate the notorious Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, under threat of impeachment. The Watergate investigation involved the discovery of numerous cover-ups by Nixon's White House aides during the campaign to re-elect President Nixon in 1972. President Nixon's closest advisers and confidants were indicted for involvement in the conspiracy. Some were convicted, and they spent time in prison.
Baker was a close ally of Nixon and was actively involved in Nixon's first successful campaign for the presidential candidacy in the late 1960s, yet Baker remained impartial during the investigation. In doing so he garnered approval from Democrats and Republicans alike. They praised him for his handling of the politically charged probe. Baker was not only impartial but thorough in delving into the mysteries of the Watergate affair. Given the conspiracy nature of the charges, the close relationship that once flourished between Baker and Nixon, and the powerful position that Baker held as chairman of the committee, it was exceptional to think that Baker refused to abet the cover-up and searched for the truth instead.
Not all of Washington approved of Baker's impeccable honesty and investigative skill, however. Conservative Republican factions in Washington were dismayed when Baker, on a separate occasion, served on a similar panel to investigate the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Baker's role in the CIA probe, combined with his non-partisan scrutiny of the Watergate affair, did not sit well with some of his colleagues.
New Political Challenges
In 1969 and again in 1971, Baker failed in his first two bids to be elected to the minority leadership of the Senate. He ran successfully in 1977, however, after the Republican debacle over the Watergate scandal: President Nixon had since resigned under threat of impeachment, and the Republicans lost the presidential election of 1976. The party needed an unspoiled image to help the public to forget the unpleasant days of the Watergate hearings. Baker provided that image. His tenure as minority leader lasted four years, from 1977 until 1981.
In 1979 Baker made a bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. As a perennial opponent of big government, he ran on a platform of limited government controls. He promoted a four-year plan to cut income taxes, and he staunchly opposed wage and price controls for industry. He favored cutbacks in federal spending and the imposition of spending limits for the federal government, and he supported a "windfall profits" tax for oil companies to pay on excessive profits.
By March of 1980 it was clear that former actor and California Governor Ronald Reagan would win the Republican nomination, but Baker was under consideration as a vice-presidential candidate on the Reagan ticket. He never did receive the vice-presidential nomination, but a landslide victory by Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980 brought with it the added benefit of a Republican majority in the Senate. Baker won reelection as the Republican Party leader, to become the Senate Majority Leader in 1981. Two years later he was elected once again. He served as Majority Leader of the Senate until he retired from the legislature in 1985.
The Reagan Years
With Reagan in the White House, Baker proved to be a political asset to the President on more than one occasion. He came to Reagan's defense in support of cutbacks in defense spending, an issue which antagonized the conservative Republican members of the legislature. With a bigger issue at stake (the need to balance the federal budget), Baker publicly criticized Reagan's opponents and accused them [of] "voting with their money … voting the wrong way … playing a dangerous game," according to a report by Peter McGrath, Rich Thomas, and Henry Hubbard of Newsweek.
Baker retired from the legislature in 1985. In the wake of an 18-year senatorial career, he never left Washington, D.C., altogether. In 1987 Reagan appointed Baker as White House Chief of Staff to replace the ousted Donald Regan. Baker held the position until 1988, and his talent for compromise proved invaluable during that time. He helped to quell public furor over the Iran-Contra scandal that erupted during the Reagan Administration. Iran-Contra was a notorious affair that implicated the United States government in a scheme to procure arms from Central American rebels and then re-sell the weapons to hostile governments in the middle east.
The incident was aggravated because President Reagan insisted that he could not remember whether or not he had authorized any part of the deal. Howard Baker's calm disposition and professional demeanor, combined with his affinity for compromise, proved invaluable in calming Democratic demands for an impeachment investigation. In The Acting President, Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates observed, "Baker's forte was the art of conciliation."
Baker lives with his wife in Tennessee. He maintains an office in Washington, D.C., where he is involved with the tobacco lobby. He is an accomplished photographer in his own right. His book, Big South Fork Country, (1993) is a pictorial essay on the Big South Fork National River on the Tennessee-Kentucky Border. The river is nicknamed the "Yosemite of the East."
There are many stories about Baker's good nature and his sense of humor. One report in People, quoted the invitations he sent for his wedding rehearsal in 1966. The invitations read like the U.S. Constitution, "In order to form a more perfect union."
Another story surfaced in 1984. It was rumored in 50 Plus that the New York Times reported that Baker was listed among the "10 best dressed men" in a list compiled by a dubious trade organization called the Tailors Council of America. Baker knew it was a joke, and he admitted candidly, "I am a slob. I want to say that I have absolutely no taste in clothes."
Baker's personal and political style was summed up by his stepmother, who was quoted by Schieffer and Gates, "Howard is like the Tennessee River. He flows right down the middle."
Further Reading on Howard Henry Baker Jr
Cannon, Lou, Reagan, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
Schieffer, Bob, and Gary Paul Gates, The Acting President, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
Schoenebaum, Eleanora W., Ph.D. (editor), Political Profiles: Nixon/Ford years, Facts on File, 1979.
World Almanac Biographical Dictionary, World Almanac, 1990.
50 Plus, March 1984, p. 11.
Fortune, January 24, 1983, p. 35 (2).
Newsweek, September 31, 1961, pp. 26-28.
People, December 23, 1996, p. 88.
U.S. News & World Report, February 11, 1980; January 31, 1983, p. 18 (2).