Prominent Senator Howard Baker Has Died At 88, And Here's Why We'll Remember Him

On Thursday, President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and a former Senate majority leader, Howard Baker, died in Huntsville, Tennessee. According to his longtime aide, Tom Griscom, the 88-year-old senator suffered complications from a stroke.

Baker maintained a major presence in the Republican Party throughout his illustrious career as a politician. He first sprang into the national spotlight in 1973, when he served as the vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. It was Baker who pressed officials about the circumstances surrounding the famous scandal, asking "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" This became the central question of the entire investigation, and Baker's vigilance in finding the truth largely contributed to the outcome of the proceedings.

Though Baker was a Republican, and was expected to defend the White House and the Republican president, he won the respect of members across the aisle by acting as an impartial seeker of justice, and though he was described as a "close friend and trusted advisor" of Nixon's, he distanced himself from the president during the investigation. Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker commented to the Washington Post, “The fact he acted as impartially as he did is one of the high points of his career.”

A Man Of The People

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Baker spent 18 years in the Senate, and during his tenure, he was known as a bipartisan force who played for the people, not the party. Baker was the first Republican in Tennessee to make his way to the Senate through popular election, and depended largely upon his reputation as a moderate. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III told the Washington Post that Baker was “the quintessential mediator, negotiator and moderator.”

Nixon was not the only president with whom Baker had a close relationship — President Reagan also depended largely upon Baker to enact key legislation, including Reagan's first term tax cuts. But it was during Reagan's second term that Baker truly became a quintessential asset. After retiring from Senate in 1985, Baker thought he would have the opportunity to enjoy a private life for at least a few years. He was working as a high-profile lawyer at a famous firm, and was not expecting a call from the president during a family vacation in February 1987.

Invaluable To Ronald Reagan

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The Iran-Contra scandal had just broken, and the president found himself in a highly volatile position with plunging approval ratings. Reagan, who made the defeat of communism a hallmark of his presidency, seemed to be in hot water after the discovery that several top officials in his administration had facilitated arms sales to Iran against congressional orders, thereby violating Congress' embargo on the middle eastern nation. These sales would also allow Americans to secretly fund the overthrow of Nicaragua's far left government by funneling money to Contra militants.

Given Reagan's support of the Contra cause, the president seemed highly suspect in the scandal, and Baker was once again called in to get to the bottom of the situation. But this time, rather than catalyzing the end of a presidency, he managed to rebuild Reagan's reputation. By concocting a strategic damage-control agenda, including a famous speech in which Reagan took responsibility and expressed disappointment for his administration's actions, Baker slowly rebuilt the American people's trust in their president. Reagan's popularity levels began to climb again, and Baker had succeeded.

Though Baker was an expert negotiator and known for his ability to cooperate, these qualities began to lose their appeal when the Republican party shifted further to the right, distancing themselves from a moderate base in favor of a more hardline conservative image. In fact, it was Baker's middle-of-the-road approach that, while granting him success in Congress, destroyed his chances for the presidency.

A Passionate Artist

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While politics was the name of his profession, photography was Baker's true passion, and his camera was known to be a ubiquitous accessory. As a young man, he took photographs of gubernatorial electioneering, and later on in his life, he had darkrooms installed in his houses in Tennessee and Washington, D.C. Baker once famously said that photography “may be the only place where I can reasonably aspire to perfection.”

Perhaps it was the pronounced difference between his day job and his favorite hobby that made photography all the more appealing to the senator. Said Baker, "photographs that appeal to me are straightforward and simple and direct," a far cry from the political maneuvering of Washington. But it was straightforwardness and simplicity that earned Baker the respect of presidents, Congress, and the American people, and his passing leaves the country with one less great man.

Rest in peace, Senator Baker. You will be missed.