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…A Nation Turns its Lonely Eyes to You

This is a post from a couple of years ago, but at this fraught moment it seemed worthwhile to re-post it.

In today’s political climate, a lot of the pundits I’m addicted to on the cable news shows are making references to Watergate, and pulling out old footage of the Watergate hearings. In one clip I noticed, sitting right next to Sam Ervine on the special committee investigating the whole affair, the ranking Republican member and Vice-Chair Howard Baker. A sort of elegiac emotion washed over me. Once, there were public servants like Howard Baker.

Baker is the one who famously put the question to John Dean: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”. The constitutional fabric of the American government was being torn to shreds by a maniac in the White House, the foundations of the Republic were cracking, and it was no time for partisan hackery. Something had to be done.

Baker was a member of that now extinct variety of Senator who once roamed the halls of Congress, known as “moderate Republicans”.  He was a statesman, a man of unimpeachable character, highly respected on both sides of the aisle, whose down-home Tennessee aw-shucks affability was, opponents were always happily surprised to find out, no pose. It’s just how he was. He functioned on the premise that if you were a reasonable person of good faith, willing to saw things off in the middle, he’d work with you, and together you’d get things done and leave the place better than you found it.

He was so good at brokering bi-partisan compromise that he earned the nickname “the Great Conciliator”, and he was the sort of man who’d pay the political price for doing the right thing, even if that price could be dear. He showed that many times, most notably in helping Democratic President Jimmy Carter push the Panama Canal treaty through the Senate; it’s widely thought that unhappiness over that was a key factor in thwarting his effort to win his party’s nomination to run for President in 1980.

He did manage to become Senate Majority Leader, and later, the President’s Chief of Staff, near the end of Reagan’s second term, but never was a person better qualified to have become President, or more likely to have been successful with Congress and the American people if he had. I’ve often wondered how the history of that period would have turned out, had it been him in the White House, instead of Reagan. Better.

He was my kind of conservative. Generally a hard-liner on matters of foreign policy, he saw no need to be equally hard with the people of his own country. I don’t know that he ever articulated it that way, but it was clear that Baker’s philosophy was that there could be no purpose to taking a firm stance on the global stage if there was nothing at home to protect.

He accrued many honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and, surprisingly, was a truly gifted, award-winning photographer.

A dozen legislators of this man’s caliber, if active in the Congress today, could change the world. Instead, we have Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. I’ve never heard Baker’s views quoted on the obstructionist tactics of the current Republican leadership, but it seems certain that the Great Conciliator would not have approved.

Howard Baker lived to be 88, leaving us in 2014. Perhaps we’ll see his like again, some day.

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