Former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. was remembered Tuesday for being able to forge compromises amid bitter partisan differences.
Dignitaries including Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Al Gore gathered for Baker’s funeral and burial just a few hundred feet from the house where he was born.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a onetime aide, said despite Baker’s high-profile career in Washington, where he became known as “The Great Conciliator,” he remained firmly rooted in this rural Cumberland Plateau community of Huntsville, about 130 miles east of Nashville, that he liked to call “the center of the known universe.”
“Some people in political life who get so-called important forget where they came from,” Alexander said. “He never stopped sounding like where he grew up.”
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Alexander said Baker supported civil rights legislation when most Southerners did not, and had to maneuver some fellow Republican senators’ demands for his resignation from his leadership position over his support for the Panama Canal treaty.
Baker, who died Thursday at age 88, became known for cutting to the core of the 1973 Watergate hearings when he asked of then-President Richard Nixon: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, Baker was a household name with a reputation for fairness and smarts that stuck throughout his long political career. Besides being Senate majority leader from 1981 to 1985, he later became chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and one of the GOP’s elder statesmen.
“There were two things he said did not understand,” Alexander said in one of the lighter moments of the service. “One was the Middle East, and one was the United States House of Representatives.”
Biden, who served with Baker in the Senate, did not speak at the service, but said in an op-ed in the Knoxville News Sentinel that Baker “was honorable, he was tough, and he was fair – traits that served him well as he took on two of the most challenging jobs in Washington.”
Also in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
As for Baker’s skillful listening, Alexander recalled statements Baker made in 2011.
“There is a difference between hearing and understanding what people say,” he quoted Baker. “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.”
Alexander noted that when Baker was first elected to the Senate, Republicans had largely been confined to the eastern part of the state. Today they thoroughly dominate the political landscape in Tennessee. He lauded Baker’s ability to spot talent, like his former Watergate aide Fred Thompson, who was later elected to the Senate and was succeeded by Alexander.
Baker was buried next to his first wife, Joy Dirksen Baker, who died of cancer in 1993. Baker was remarried three years later to Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who was about to retire from the Senate after serving three terms. It was the first time two people who had served in the Senate had gotten married.
Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., a Knoxville Republican, remembered Baker for giving him the opportunity when he was 19 to speak at a rally toward the end of Baker’s first successful election to the Senate. He said he has tried to emulate him.
“To me his legacy is he was the champion of civility in politics,” he said. “Today we have too many people on both sides who are angry. There’s a lot of good people on both sides in these political battles, and he always thought you could express your opinions without attacking people.”