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Howard Baker, the last of the Republican moderates [Commentary]

At a time when the Republican Party needs a heavy dose of compromise to bring functionality back to government, one of its most admirable models of goodwill and working across the aisle has departed with the death at 88 last week of Howard Henry Baker Jr. of Tennessee.

The state's first elected GOP senator, former Senate majority leader, Reagan White House chief of staff and presidential aspirant was a gentle throwback to the brand of moderate conservatism that got things done without breaking the china. It could be said that he was born into the political aristocracy, but he toiled therein with the common touch of Main Street.

He was the son of a congressman and son-in-law of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. After the death of his wife, Joy Dirksen Baker, he married Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, daughter of 1936 Republican presidential nominee Gov. Alfred E. Landon of Kansas. In his easy-going demeanor and absence of flamboyance, however, Baker was devoid of any airs of entitlement.

According to the diaries of Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Baker in 1971 was offered a seat on the Supreme Court and said he would accept, but Nixon instead nominated William Rehnquist. Nevertheless he remained a loyal Nixon supporter in his 1972 campaign for re-election.

In the summer of 1973, Baker became vice chairman of the special Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and the role played by the Nixon re-election committee. Skeptics figured he would be a protector of Nixon in the hearings, but he proved to be a fair and earnest seeker of the truth, embodied in his repeated question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Baker's inquiry drove the committee's quest that ultimately forced the court-ordered release of the White House tapes, tightening the noose around Nixon's neck. They included the recorded conversation that confirmed he had helped orchestrate the cover-up of efforts to frustrate and shut down the investigation.

After Nixon's resignation in the face of likely impeachment, Baker continued in the Senate, and in 1978 played a critical role along with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd in ratification of the treaty transferring control of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama. It was aggressively opposed by conservatives in Baker's own party, and aides warned him his support would probably cost him his chance to be its 1980 presidential nominee.

Baker proceeded anyway, and when the treaty was ratified with 16 Republican votes, just enough for approval, Byrd proclaimed: "Courage? That's Howard Baker and the Panama Canal."

In 1979, Baker did set out on a quest for the next GOP presidential nomination, but in a candidate forum and straw poll in Maine he lost to the senior George Bush, who then upset Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses. But Reagan bounced back in the New Hampshire primary, burying both Mr. Bush and Baker en route to his nomination and election.

Baker continued in the Senate until his retirement in 1985, but two years later Reagan recruited him to be chief of staff. The president was embroiled at the time in the Iran-Contra affair, in which White House aides, ignoring a congressional embargo, had conspired to sell weapons to Iran, and then sent the proceeds to Nicaraguan insurgents against that country's left-wing regime. Reagan told Baker he was an innocent victim in the matter, and his new chief of staff helped him extricate himself from the political mess.

Through it all, Baker's talent for conciliation within his own party and with the opposition reinforced his reputation as a political peacemaker. His willingness to compromise stands as a sharp contrast to today's legislative gridlock in Washington, in which Republican obstruction has led President Barack Obama to turn to executive actions to achieve his ends.

The current effort of House Speaker John Boehner to sue him on grounds of exceeding his constitutional powers and failing to faithfully execute existing law is something that Howard Baker never could have imagined or entertained. His policy of setting partisanship aside to get the nation's business done seems to have passed with his own departure.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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