RIP Howard Baker, the Last Honorable Republican

Norman Ornstein, at TNR:

What did the president know and when did he know it?” That phrase, uttered by Republican Senator Howard Baker during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings on June 29, 1973, will forever be associated with Baker, who died Thursday at 88 in Tennessee. While Baker, the vice chair of the committee, was attempting dutifully to protect the reputation of his close friend President Richard Nixon, the phrase, and his impeccably fair conduct on the committee, underscored the fact that the partisan divisions on the committee and in the country did not dominate the proceedings. Its balance and fairness, due in no small part to Baker, made what followed—impeachment proceedings in the House, and the ultimate resignation of the president, a time of extraordinary tension in the country—an episode that ended with far more national comity and unity than polarization and division.

Baker’s long career in politics and government, and his time since leaving public service, were testament to his credo, which he described to The Ripon Forum in 2007: “I’m a life-long and proud Republican. Unlike some, however, I don’t believe loyalty to party precludes common sense decision and policymaking. Some of our Nation’s greatest triumphs have come when political leaders have not allowed partisan differences to deter their efforts to find solutions that are in the Nation’s best interest.”…

… Baker became party leader because he faithfully worked to implement his party’s program, especially when it held the White House; after the “riverboat gamble” comment, Baker skillfully engineered Senate passage of the Reagan tax cuts. But far more important than ideology, Baker stood out for his decency and his desire to solve problems, and, as Robert Byrd said, for his courage in working to solve those problems in ways that would thwart his own ambition and cause ripples within his party…

Baker was born into the “business” of politics (his father was in the House), and married into it, twice (his first wife was Everett Dirksen’s daughter, and his second Alf Landon’s daughter and a Senator herself). He always seemed, to a partisan Democrat like me, the epitome of the “Main Street small businessman” who worked tirelessly to keep the franchise he’d inherited and the larger community sound and prosperous. Unfortunately for Senator Baker, it was his tragedy that he came to power at the exact point where his company, the Republican Party, tipped into the hands of an increasingly demented horde of grifters and revanchists. So he spent his career attempting — not always unsuccessfully — to clean up the worst messes made by his fellow Repubs, and to keep the national “business” on a sound footing. There are worse epitaphs.

57 replies
  1. 1
    Eric U. says:

    it’s been so long since the idea that there could be honorable Republicans has crossed my mind, I can’t dispute the idea that Howard Baker was the last one. On reflection, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was

  2. 2
    Mike in NC says:

    Sore loser Chris McDaniel would have called Baker a RINO, or worse.

  3. 3
    some guy says:

    In 1973, not all Republicans had discovered that the Last Train to Nixonland only had one-way fares.

    rip, Howard

  4. 4
    Derelict says:

    I have found memories of Baker from the Nixon days. And not so fond ones of his days as Bush family retainer. Whatever steadying influence he should have had was completely wasted on the Shrub. And far too much of his late energy was diverted to The Carlisle Group.

    But he was the last of his breed. By modern right-left standards, he’d be left of center. Which is a damning illustration of how the political spectrum has shifted.

  5. 5
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Thanks for this thread, Anne Laurie. As I mentioned a few threads down, I think of Howard Baker as a “good Republican,” a phrase which these days sounds like the most laughable oxymoron.

    My ex-husband was extremely proud of the fact that both he and Senator Baker were members of the same fraternity (Pi Kappa Phi), although I don’t believe they ever met. I came of political age (which is to say, I became a liberal/Democrat) during Watergate, but back then one judged individual Republicans (and Democrats) on their merits. Howard Baker was, as you say, honorable. I wish he hadn’t agreed to be Reagan’s CoS, but I do think he was — for a politician — a man of integrity. I honestly can’t think of one.single.Republican today of whom I could say the same. The country is the poorer for that.

    RIP, Senator Baker.

  6. 6
    Mike G says:

    I remember he took a minor run at a presidential candidacy (1988 maybe?) and seemed like a reasonable and decent guy amidst his party’s lineup of douchebags, sharks and morons. Probably the last Republican I wouldn’t have minded being in the White House.

  7. 7
    Elizabelle says:

    Thank you , Anne.

    We spend so much time on the idiocy and cruelties of today’s degenerate Republicans that we forget that some were decent. Once.

    Although their day has pretty much passed.

    Howard Baker was a class act, as is Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker. RIP Howard.

  8. 8
    Elizabelle says:

    I liked Gerald and Betty Ford a lot too.

    And Mark Hatfield (what little I know of him). And John Chafee, Governor of Rhode Island when we lived there.

    The Reagan Revolution swept a lot of decency out of that party.

  9. 9
    Smiling Mortician says:

    @Derelict: Are you sure you’re not thinking of James Baker?

  10. 10
    spudgun says:

    @Mike in NC: Actually, I’ve already read comments to that effect in a couple of obits — *sigh*

  11. 11
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Howard Baker immediately preceded Al Gore in the Senate. I wonder whether the Baker family might invite Gore to speak at Baker’s funeral. It would be a nice shout-out to Baker’s legacy as an “across-the-aisle” kind of guy.

  12. 12
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Elizabelle: John Chafee went on to a respectable career in the Senate after the governorship.

  13. 13
    JPL says:

    @Elizabelle: Actually the Reagan Revolution inherited the scum from the south. The south has been suffering because of it since. The South is moving further to the right. States are decreasing funding for education and then complaining about the results. GA has been cutting funding for children and family services for years and now there are horrific crimes that could have been prevented. The result is there is talk of privatizing D-FACs.

  14. 14
    Elizabelle says:


    Reagan kicking off his 1980 general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. For shame.

    The civil rights workers’ murders were 50 years ago this week.

  15. 15
    satby says:

    Howard Baker was a regular politician forced by circumstances and his own innate integrity to become a statesman when his country needed one. He put country above party. He wouldn’t be welcomed as a Republican today.
    To bad for all of us.

  16. 16
    JPL says:

    Baker made a name for himself when he refused Nixon’s request to close the hearings so the public could not hear the testimony of his aides. Because he refused to hold the hearings behind closed doors, I will always respect him for that decision. He was also the person who made deals with the Senate to protect Reagan from impeachment for the Iran/Contra affair. He was a republican and he wouldn’t cross certain lines but those lines had cracks.

  17. 17
    Elizabelle says:

    He was a decent guy and an actual public servant.

    NYTimes says he was a good photographer, too.

  18. 18
    gene108 says:


    But he was the last of his breed. By modern right-left standards, he’d be left of center. Which is a damning illustration of how the political spectrum has shifted.

    I do want to know on what line you are looking at the shift.

    On social issues, the country has moved to the left, like interracial and gay marriage or even unmarried couples living together or people not going to church regularly or at all.

    On economic issues, we have been dominated by right-wing thinking for decades and unfortunately the Republicans now view these views as infallible as religious dogma, so there’s no real way to compromise with them.

  19. 19
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Yeah, I saw in one of the obits (might have been NYT but I don’t think so) that Baker always had a camera with him. I suppose that must have been common knowledge, but I don’t remember ever hearing about it before today.

  20. 20
    NotMax says:

    Both Robert Michel and Bob Dole are still among us.

    While one may disagree with some (or most, or even all) of their politics, they also are of the old school and have never come across at least not that I can recall) as anything other than decent and well-intentioned in the performance of their office.

  21. 21
    Elizabelle says:


    Me neither.

  22. 22
    raven says:

    And then there is this moron:

    ATLANTA | Friends of Paul Broun have one more opportunity to support the outgoing Republican congressman from Athens as he tries to retire the debt left from his unsuccessful Senate run.
    Thursday, many of them received an email from him requesting donations to raise $15,000 online by the end of Monday.
    “Before I can begin the next chapter in our fight for our nation and our Constitution, I must do all I can to retire this debt,” the letter reads.
    Broun said in an interview that he doesn’t know what that next chapter will be. He is writing a book, “Restoring Liberty in America,” that he hopes to have published in time to influence the next presidential campaign, but in the meantime, finding a paying job is a higher priority.
    His term in the House of Representatives ends in January when his successor is sworn in.
    He said he could return to practicing medicine, but he’d prefer teaching, leading an association or another post where he could continue delivering his message that America needs to return to the limits on government spelled out in the Constitution to avoid complete economic collapse.
    “My passion is to get this country back on the right course,” he said.


  23. 23
    Elizabelle says:


    Yes, I thought of (pre-Viagra) Bob Dole, too. Didn’t pay much attention to Bob Michel, but have heard good stuff about him.

    Thinking of Bob Dole though: still giggle when thinking of Time Magazine with its Bob Dole-Jack Kemp cover.

    And the headline: Life on Mars.

  24. 24
    Elizabelle says:

    In moderation. For stupidity, again. Bob Dole reminded me of, um, electile disfunction.

  25. 25
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Yes, thank you for reminding about Bob Dole. I was, of course, opposed to him in 1996, but in the context of today’s GOP, he is a fine man. And I remember a couple of years ago when he wheeled on to the Senate floor in support of (ACA? VA? can’t remember) and all the senators said, OOOH, oooh, we love you, Bob, and then immediately held up their middle fingers and voted against whatever he had been supporting.

    I don’t recall that much about Bob Michel but will take your word for it that he was another of the old school.

  26. 26
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @raven: Perhaps he can just go straight to the pit of hell to visit the lies that spring from there.

  27. 27
    Mike in NC says:


    States are decreasing funding for education and then complaining about the results.

    In NC they slashed $500M from public education last year. Now they want to go after teachers’ unions and abolish tenure in return for what amounts to a 1% raise. Part of the plan to ultimately get rid of public schools completely. Does this surprise anybody?

  28. 28
    PurpleGirl says:

    I did not read the article, just the title of link. It appears that Newtie has compared Hillary Clinton to Kim Kardashian. I do not want to know what he actually said. Can we stop the world and let me off? I’m gonna go look at kitten cams, at least the kittens are truly entertaining and authentic.

  29. 29
    PurpleGirl says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: IIRC, it was funding for the VA, the tie-in was his own disability from honorable military service.

  30. 30
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    That sounds right. I’ll look it up later, if I remember.

  31. 31
    Cassidy says:

    Anyone who identifies as a Republican in this day and age is not honorable.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    JPL says:

    I might be in the minority but when Baker rescued Reagan’s legacy during the Iran/Contra affair, he lost a lot of my respect. The Reagan administration and it’s legacy is the gift that keeps on giving. The reason is clear. When Baker asked the question “What did the President know…..”, he thought he was giving Nixon a life raft. When he announced publicly that he asked Reagan, and believed that he didn’t know, people believed him.

  34. 34
    Elizabelle says:


    Pretty much. I can’t think of one, and spare me from the delusional Maine twins. (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.)

    I still kinda like the Governator. I wonder what he thinks, in private, about the loony tunes in his party.

    I wonder what Howard Baker had to say on that matter.

  35. 35
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I wonder what Howard Baker had to say on that matter.

    Curious that the Sunday shows never had him on to share his thoughts.

  36. 36
    Cassidy says:

    @Elizabelle: I stopped wondering. I figure if you haven’t left the party at this point then you tacitly agree or are too scared to leave. Either way, I’ve got no use for them. I used to be a gun owner. I sold them in a time of need. I haven’t replaced them because I don’t want to be counted amongst them.

  37. 37
    The Dangerman says:

    Of all the bad things Reagan that have stuck around, Supply Side economics has easily been the most damaging and needs to have a stake driven through its heart (the Trillions dumped on missile defense is a close second).

  38. 38
    JPL says:

    @The Dangerman: Without missile defense, 9/11 would have been worse. Well maybe not but you know that folks who watch Fox news, believe it.

  39. 39
    Anne Laurie says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Dole was speaking up for the UN Commission on Disabilities, which was unanimously rejected by the Dung Beetle Republicans because FREEDUMB!!!

    Yeah, I’m still pretty pissed about that.

  40. 40

    @Anne Laurie: that was so goddamned infuriating. The teabaggers were all convinced that it was some Agenda 21 power grab or some bullshit (also the black dude was supporting it) so they killed it. Buncha fucks.

  41. 41
    The Republic of Stupdity says:

    @Mike G:

    Douchebags, Sharks, and Morons

    Good title for a book about the current GOP… has a nice ring to it… just mebbe spell Morons w/ an ‘a’…

  42. 42
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Anne Laurie: thanks, yeah, I found the cite.
    ETA: As soon as I googled it and found the reference, it all came back to me. I was furious with the Senate Repubs, in part because of their votes, in part because of the disgraceful way they treated their supposedly beloved former colleague. The meteor can’t arrive too soon to take out these douchehats.

  43. 43
    vtr says:

    As a born and bred Vermonter, I would include Representative, then Senator Jim Jeffords, as one of the last honorable Republicans. He left the party to become an independent to balance the Senate between GOP and Democrat at the beginning of W. Bush administration.

  44. 44
    Ash Can says:

    Howard Baker is one of the politicians I point to as a shining example of the very best of what the Republican Party used to be. In fact, he — along with folks such as Charles Percy, Millicent Fenwick, and Sen. Baker’s wife Nancy Kassebaum — is why I want to beat just about every pol with an R after his/her name nowadays with a fucking tire iron. Despite Nixon et al.’s shenanigans, Republicans genuinely used to be partners in governing with Democrats. Nowadays, Republicans shit all over Howard Baker and his political legacy with everything they do and say. If there were any justice in this world, Howard Baker’s ghost would wander the halls of the Capitol Building, spiking every Republican legislator’s coffee with extra-strength Ex-Lax.

    And PS — I went to college in DC with Howard Baker’s daughter. She was one of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. And she was very, very proud of her Tennessee heritage. She could clog-dance like nobody’s business!

  45. 45
    TG Chicago says:

    Howard Baker helped Bush steal the 2000 election, so fuck that guy.

  46. 46
    GHayduke (formerly lojasmo) says:

    Lincoln Chafee.

  47. 47
    TG Chicago says:

    @TG Chicago: Ack! I was thinking about James Baker! I retract my statement.

  48. 48
    smedley the uncertain says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Well said. I too ‘came of age politicaly” back then.

  49. 49
    smedley the uncertain says:

    The moderation censor is hyper busy tonight

  50. 50
    smedley the uncertain says:



  51. 51
    WaterGirl says:

    @TG Chicago: Don’t feel bad, you weren’t the only one to have that thought, before catching yourself!

  52. 52
    PurpleGirl says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: What was infuriating to me was that the Treaty on Disabilities was based on OUR ADA and related laws. We already had codified much of the meat of the treaty. It was the UN taking our lead and expanding it to encourage other nations to follow us.

  53. 53
    smintheus says:

    How was it honorable for Baker to attempt to undermine the investigation of the scandal? I don’t get all the whitewashing going on in this thread. His famous question, asked over and over and over again, assumed that the only answer Democrats would be able to offer was “we don’t know what Nixon knew and when”. It was Baker’s method for deflating the entire investigation; he wanted to defend Nixon by harnessing all the murkiness that Nixon had created to defend himself. The fact that Baker failed in his goal, and eventually had to accept what everybody else already had decided, that Nixon must go, did not make Baker honorable. It made him a survivor.

  54. 54
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

    He knew everything from the beginning. He was an active participant in the coverup only days after the break-in.

    If he had not resigned, he surely would have been impeached and removed from office.

    Gerald Ford’s crime was giving the crook a get out of jail without even being indicted card.

    For that, Ford should roast forever in whatever Hell there might be.

  55. 55
    Chris says:

    Let me preface this by saying again that I’m a God Damn Millennial, and therefore tend to think of Republicans of all ranks as guilty until proven innocent, and of Republicans with a “moderate” reputation as media fakes.

    Having admitted my biases:


    I wish he hadn’t agreed to be Reagan’s CoS, but I do think he was — for a politician — a man of integrity.

    … I don’t see how it’s possible to have been Reagan’s chief of staff without having been involved in the corruption and, for lack of a better word, ugliness that went with it, particularly since his term as chief of staff was during the height of the Iran-contra scandal. That and the fact that, according to someone further down the chain of comments, Baker was involved in making deals with Congress to protect Reagan from said scandal, which seems somewhat at odds with the image of him as a Watergate white knight.

    And indeed, from what I’m reading on this thread, there are other skeptics, who think his behavior during Watergate can be explained by something other than integrity.

    It’s not that I don’t believe there were honorable Republicans all the way into the eighties. I just don’t see how it’s possible to have been a Republican at the White House level, working with any of the post-Eisenhower presidents, especially in a position as high and as political as Chief of Staff, and still claim the label. (That these people were better than today’s teabaggers is possible, but really meaningless in an era when Chris “there should’ve been a referendum on civil rights” Christie is considered a moderate).

  56. 56
    brantl says:

    Howard Baker did his level best to cover over Reagan’s arm’s-for-hostages deal, he may have been an honorable man at one time, but htat was far in the past.

  57. 57
    drkrick says:

    Bob Michel was the old school House GOP leader Gingrich replaced/deposed. That transition was a pretty key milestone in making our politics the train wreck they are now.

    Baker played a more decent role in the Watergate committee than any GOP leader would be allowed to play today, but he was also the White House’s back channel to information about the committee’s deliberations that they shouldn’t have had. His record there looks a lot more honorable in comparison to what we see now than it did at the time.

    And thanks to this thread, I’m completely confused about what Howard and James Baker’s respective roles in Iran Contra were. I know Jim was a much bigger player, but I don’t remember Howard being involved very much at all.

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