Howard Baker's Gift


Mid-Appalachia, like every other region, has its share of political scoundrels. The greased-palm state legislators who conspire with coal operators to dodge EPA regulations come to mind.

Still, the usual measure of reprobates (and current enclave of conservative ideologues) notwithstanding, the region has blessed the republic with a goodly number of political leaders more invested in practicality and solutions than party agendas and style points: Wendell Ford; Jennings Randolph; Cyrus Vance; Sam Ervin; Robert Byrd; Jay Rockefeller.

But while Democrats dominate the list of Appalachian Midland pragmatists, Tennessean Howard Baker’s death at 88 in June was a reminder of a bygone age in which both Democrats and Republicans were more focused on cutting fiscal and foreign policy deals than Hobby Lobby personhood and Pop-Tart guns for 7-year-olds.

A three-term Republican senator, Reagan White House Chief of Staff and George W. Bush’s first-term ambassador to Japan, Baker is best remembered for his commitment to bipartisanship despite the growing rancor within and between political camps.

Son of a Republican US representative and married to the daughter of the then House Minority Leader, Baker gained immediate standing among his GOP colleagues when in 1967 he came to the Senate as Tennessee’s first federally-elected Republican since Reconstruction.

That inter-party capital was depleted when not long into his rookie term, Baker began working both sides of a political isle widened by ongoing social upheaval and an increasingly divisive foreign war.

But while residual Goldwater and nouveau conservatives joined ranks to thwart his bipartisan efforts, over time more moderate Republicans took Baker’s cafeteria approach to governing, earning him the title most often associated with his name: the “Great Conciliator.”

Students of the Watergate era will also remember Baker as a leading member of the Senate Select Committee tasked with investigating the meltdown. Baker’s piercing question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” was at once a cross-examination and real-time personal crisis of faith as along with the country Baker lost a president to excess.

Post-Watergate, Baker attempted his own presidential run, but garnered little attention and funding, so continued to serve in the Senate until 1984.

Baker was two years removed from public office when Ronald Reagan, mired deep in the Iran-contra scandal implored him to become White House chief of staff. Baker grudgingly accepted and is widely credited with putting out the worst of the fires. Baker capped his long career shuttling back and forth between Washington and Tokyo, where he served as US ambassador to Japan. Colleagues’ books and memoirs written about Baker’s Senate years consistently define the secret to Baker’s success as his emphasis on process over content - how we’re going to talk versus what we’re going to talk about. It was his modus operandi for governing. Given this principle, perhaps Baker’s great gift to the political system he loved but sometimes hated lay not in his consistency on the issues, nor even his moxie in front a dozen Watergate cameras; but his ability to keep the discussion going when everybody else wanted to call it a night.

Process over content. On this key count, Baker is a model for both progressives and conservatives seriously interested in doing the people’s business.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014

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