Howard Henry Baker Jr. (November 15, 1925 – June 26, 2014) was an American politician and diplomat who served as a Republican United States Senator from Tennessee and Senate Majority Leader. Baker later served as White House Chief of Staff for President Ronald Reagan. Known in Washington, D.C., as the "Great Conciliator", Baker was often regarded as one of the most successful senators in terms of brokering compromises, enacting legislation and maintaining civility. Baker was a moderate conservative who was also respected enormously by most of his Democratic colleagues.
Born in Huntsville, Tennessee, Baker pursued a legal career after graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law. His father, Howard Baker Sr., represented Tennessee in the United States House of Representatives in the 1950s. In the 1966 Tennessee Senate election, Baker defeated Governor Frank G. Clement, becoming the first Republican to represent Tennessee in the Senate since the end of Reconstruction. After the retirement of Hugh Scott, Baker became the leader of the Senate Republicans, serving as Senate Minority Leader or Senate Majority Leader from 1977 to 1985.
Baker sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 but dropped out after the first set of primaries. He did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1984. From 1987 to 1988, he served as White House Chief of Staff under President Reagan. After leaving the White House, he worked as a lobbyist and adviser at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. He also served on the boards of the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Partnership for a Secure America. From 2001 to 2005, he was the United States Ambassador to Japan. His first wife, Joy, was the daughter of former Senate Minority leader Everett Dirksen. After Joy's death in 1993, Baker married Senator Nancy Kassebaum, the daughter of 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon.
His father served as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from 1951 until 1964, representing a traditionally Republican district in East Tennessee. Baker attended The McCallie School in Chattanooga, and after graduating, he attended Tulane University in New Orleans. During World War II, he trained at a U.S. Navy facility on the campus of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. He served in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1946 and graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1949. The same year, he was admitted to the Tennessee bar and began his law practice.
The rotunda at the University of Tennessee College of Law is now named for Baker. While he was delivering a commencement speech during his grandson's graduation at East Tennessee State University (Johnson City) on May 5, 2007, Baker was awarded an honorary doctorate degree. Baker was an alumnus of the Alpha Sigma Chapter of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity.
Baker began his political career in 1964, when he lost to the liberal Democrat Ross Bass in a U.S. Senate election to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator Estes Kefauver. In the 1966 U.S. Senate election for Tennessee, Bass lost the Democratic primary to former Governor Frank G. Clement, and Baker handily won his Republican primary race over Kenneth Roberts, 112,617 (75.7 percent) to 36,043 (24.2 percent). Baker won the general election, capitalizing on Clement's failure to energize the Democratic base, including specifically organized labor.
He won by a somewhat larger-than-expected margin of 55.7 percent to Clement's 44.2 percent. Baker thus became the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction and the first Republican to be popularly elected to the Senate from Tennessee. Harry W. Wellford, then a private attorney but later a U.S. District Court justice and then U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice, served as Baker's campaign chair and closest confidant.
Baker was re-elected in 1972 and again in 1978, serving altogether from January 3, 1967, to January 3, 1985. In 1969, he was already a candidate for the Minority Leadership position that opened up with the death of his father-in-law, Everett Dirksen, but Baker was defeated 19–24 by Hugh Scott. At the beginning of the following Congress in 1971, Baker ran again, losing to Scott this time 20–24.
President Richard Nixon asked Baker in 1971 to fill one of the two empty seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. When Baker took too long to decide whether he wanted the appointment, Nixon changed his mind and nominated William Rehnquist instead.
In 1973-74, Baker became the influential ranking minority member of the Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, that investigated the Watergate scandal. Baker is famous for having asked aloud, "What did the President know and when did he know it?" The question is sometimes attributed to being given to him by his counsel and former campaign manager, future U.S. Senator Fred Thompson.
John Dean, former counsel to Nixon, revealed to Senate Watergate chief counsel Sam Dash in executive session that Baker had "secret dealings with the White House" during the congressional investigation. Though a juror in any future impeachment trial, Baker was recorded on February 22, 1973 promising Nixon, "I'm your friend. I'm going to see that your interests are protected." Following this, writes Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, "both the majority Democrats and minority Republicans agreed to share all information." Ultimately, one such document shared by Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt inadvertently suggested the presence of Nixon's secret taping system.
When Hugh Scott retired, Baker was elected senate minority leader in 1977 by his Republican colleagues, defeating Robert Griffin, 19-18. Baker served two terms as Senate Minority Leader (1977–81) and two terms as Senate Majority Leader (1981–85).
Baker was frequently mentioned by insiders as a possible nominee for Vice President of the United States on a ticket headed by incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. According to many sources, Baker was a frontrunner for this post, but then he disclosed that his wife, Joy, was an alcoholic. Ford, evidently concluding that one alcoholic spouse in the campaign—his wife, Betty, for whom it would be necessary to stage an intervention in a few years—was sufficient, chose Kansas Senator Bob Dole.
Baker ran for U.S. President in 1980, dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination after losing the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush and the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan, even though a Gallup poll had him in second place in the presidential race, at eighteen percent behind Reagan at 41 percent, as late as November 1979. Ted Stevens served as Acting Minority Leader during his primary campaign.
Baker's support of the 1978 Panama Canal Treaties was overwhelmingly unpopular, especially among Republicans, and it cost him politically when he ran for president two years later. It was a factor in Reagan's choosing George H.W. Bush instead of Baker as his running mate.
In 1984 Baker received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As a testament to Baker's skill as a negotiator, and an honest and amiable broker, Reagan tapped him to serve as Chief of Staff during part of Reagan's second term (1987–1988). Many saw this as a move by Reagan to mend relations with the Senate, which had deteriorated somewhat under the previous chief of staff, Donald Regan.
In 2003, the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy was set up at the University of Tennessee to honor him. Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech at the 2005 ground-breaking ceremony for the center's new building. Upon the building's completion in 2008, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor assisted in the facility's dedication.
In 2007, Baker joined fellow former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, and George Mitchell to found the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit think tank that works to develop policies suitable for bipartisan support.
He was an Advisory Board member for the Partnership for a Secure America, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to recreating the bipartisan center in American national security and foreign policy. Baker also held a seat on the board of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a nonprofit that provides international election support.
Baker was an accomplished lifelong photographer. His photographs have been exhibited frequently and were published in National Geographic, Life, and in the books Howard Baker's Washington (1982), Big South Fork Country (1993), and Scott's Gulf: The Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness (2000). In 1993 he received the International Award of the American Society of Photographers and in 1994 he was elected into the Hall of Fame of the Photo Marketing Association.
Baker was a Presbyterian.
He was married to the daughters of two prominent Republicans. Baker's first wife, Joy, who died of cancer, was the daughter of former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. In 1996, he married former U.S. Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum, daughter of the late Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon, who was the Republican nominee for President in 1936.