Howard Baker, the ‘Eloquent Listener’

Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker poses in front of his photographs at the opening ceremony of his photo exhibition 'Ambassador Baker's Japan' on November 16, 2004 in Tokyo, Japan.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 26, 2014, 12:31 p.m.

Howard Baker had his own meas­ure of great­ness in pub­lic ser­vice, one that would be re­cog­nized by few of the politi­cians who fol­lowed him in­to the Sen­ate and even few­er of those who, as he did, run for pres­id­ent today. To Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, the secret to suc­cess was be­ing what he called an “elo­quent listen­er.”

Baker had strong views and, over al­most five dec­ades in Wash­ing­ton, fought fe­ro­ciously for them. He did that through three terms in the Sen­ate, ar­riv­ing in town as the first Re­pub­lic­an since Re­con­struc­tion elec­ted from Ten­ness­ee, rising to be minor­ity and ma­jor­ity lead­er, run­ning un­suc­cess­fully for pres­id­ent and then re­turn­ing to town to res­cue the pres­id­ency of the man who beat him for the nom­in­a­tion. Along the way, he gained un­usu­al na­tion­al ac­claim as a second-ter­mer when he was a standout in the Sen­ate hear­ings that looked in­to Pres­id­ent Richard Nix­on’s con­duct in the Wa­ter­gate saga.

But al­ways Baker in­sisted that his secret was be­ing open to what oth­ers said — a trait he lamen­ted as lack­ing in today’s po­lar­ized cap­it­al. “I in­creas­ingly be­lieve that the es­sence of lead­er­ship, the es­sence of good Sen­ate ser­vice, is the abil­ity to be an elo­quent listen­er, to hear and un­der­stand what your col­leagues have to say, what your party has to say, what the coun­try has to say … and try to trans­late that in­to ef­fect­ive policy,” he said in 2011 in an in­ter­view with the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter. He loved that phrase “elo­quent listen­er,” ex­plain­ing, “There is a dif­fer­ence between hear­ing and un­der­stand­ing what people say. 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.”

In his fi­nal years, he came to see the polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion of Wash­ing­ton as “cor­ros­ive” and yearned for the days when Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats could talk to each oth­er, as he did with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sam Ervin of North Car­o­lina, the chair­man of the Wa­ter­gate com­mit­tee. Fred Thompson, who later was to hold Baker’s Sen­ate seat, was the com­mit­tee’s minor­ity coun­sel and marveled at what he called “the per­son­al re­la­tion­ship” between Ervin and Baker. “The pres­sure on Sen­at­or Baker dur­ing those Wa­ter­gate years was un­be­liev­able. It was not only pres­sure from the White House, but from Ten­ness­ee, from Re­pub­lic­ans, from the press…. He handled it with the equan­im­ity that he’s known for and the pa­tience and ana­lys­is and cool­ness,” said Thompson three years ago.

Be­cause of Baker, Thompson called the Wa­ter­gate com­mit­tee “prob­ably the last com­mit­tee that really had a bi­par­tis­an in­vest­ig­a­tion.” But it also caused prob­lems for Baker among Re­pub­lic­an diehards, who later grew angry with him for his sup­port of Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter’s treaty to give Panama con­trol of the Panama Canal. Baker knew the is­sue would hurt him when he ran for pres­id­ent in 1980. “That was a dif­fi­cult time for me,” said Baker. “It had dif­fi­cult con­sequences.” But he be­lieved it was right and he de­livered enough Re­pub­lic­an votes to Carter to get the needed 67. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Vir­gin­ia, an ex­pert on Sen­ate his­tory, later de­scribed that as one of the “great mo­ments of polit­ic­al cour­age” in the Sen­ate.

That vote put Baker in op­pos­i­tion to Ron­ald Re­agan in 1976 and helped pave the way for his loss to Re­agan in the 1980 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. But Baker, as ma­jor­ity lead­er, loy­ally put aside his mis­giv­ings about Re­agan’s eco­nom­ic pro­gram to de­liv­er the votes for those pro­grams. And when he left the Sen­ate in 1985, he answered Re­agan’s call once again — though, this time, very re­luct­antly.

It was 1987, and Re­agan’s pres­id­ency was reel­ing from the Ir­an Con­tra scan­dal. The pres­id­ent real­ized he needed to dump Don­ald Regan, his ar­rog­ant and em­battled White House chief of staff, and re­place him with some­body who could soothe the ten­sions in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion and re­build re­la­tions with Con­gress — some­body who would ac­tu­ally listen to oth­ers. Howard Baker was his choice. But Baker had oth­er plans.

As he re­called in a 2004 in­ter­view with the Miller Cen­ter of Pub­lic Af­fairs Pres­id­en­tial Or­al His­tory Pro­gram at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia, Baker had gone to Flor­ida for a fam­ily con­fer­ence to get their sup­port for an­oth­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy in 1988. He had taken his 6-year-old grand­son to the Miami Zoo when Pres­id­ent Re­agan called. When Baker’s wife said he was at the zoo, Re­agan quipped, “Wait un­til he sees the zoo I have in mind for him.”

When Baker re­turned the call, it was with the firm de­term­in­a­tion to ex­plain his own polit­ic­al plans and to re­spond, “I’m sorry, Mr. Pres­id­ent, I can’t do it.” But he listened to Re­agan, heard his an­guish over the state of af­fairs at the White House. “I heard my­self say, ‘All right.’ And that was the end of my good re­solve,” Baker rather sheep­ishly ex­plained his ac­cept­ance of the chief of staff post.

It was the end of Baker’s dream of be­ing pres­id­ent. But it was so very typ­ic­al of Baker’s ca­reer. It wasn’t good polit­ics to in­vest­ig­ate a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent; it wasn’t good polit­ics to sup­port the Panama Canal treaty; it wasn’t good polit­ics to be­come chief of staff in a highly dys­func­tion­al White House. By today’s stand­ards, it prob­ably wasn’t good polit­ics to build a ca­reer on work­ing with the oth­er party. But that was Howard Baker, the “great con­cili­at­or” who listened to oth­ers and got things done in Wash­ing­ton.

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