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Baker lived giant, gentle life
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Howard H. Baker Jr., who died Thursday at age 88, will be remembered in tributes for many things: The way he broke the century-long Democratic hold on Tennessee. His rise up the ladder in Washington politics. His uncommonly decent reign as Senate majority leader. His marriages -- almost certainly the only man who could have claimed this -- to daughters of two of the most prominent Republicans in American history. His thwarted presidential ambitions. His wise, calm stewardship of the last years of Ronald Reagan's presidency as White House chief of staff.
But Mr. Baker will be remembered for generations for one thing. He asked one of the most important questions in American history.
It was a question so basic, so innocent in its approach and assumptions, so intelligent in its formulation and yet so trenchant that it ferreted out the truth at the height of the Watergate tensions -- and it was so piercing in its clarity that it became a cliche:
What did the president know and when did he know it?
The son of a Republican congressman in Tennessee's 2nd District, Baker was the first Republican since Reconstruction to win popular election in a statewide race.
His election to the Senate ended statewide domination of a particularly and peculiarly powerful strain of Democratic politician: Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, but also 20th-century giants such as Cordell Hull (later secretary of state), Estes Kefauver (a celebrated Senate investigator known for his defeat of John F. Kennedy for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination) and Albert Gore Sr. (senator and father of a vice president). The latter two, along with Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, were the only Democrats from Confederate states who did not sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration.
Baker's triumph spawned a new breed of Tennessee Republicans -- among their number is Lamar Alexander, a former governor, education secretary, university president and sitting senator -- and transformed Tennessee into a two-party state.
Baker's first wife was the daughter of Sen. Everett Dirksen, the celebrated Republican senator from Illinois. After Joy Baker died of cancer, Mr. Baker married another former GOP senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, the daughter of Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas. Later, George W. Bush appointed Baker ambassador to Japan.
No one who was in the Senate gallery when Mr. Baker announced his retirement from the chamber in 1984 will forget his personal reminiscence. It was a speech that was, by turns, sorrowful and sentimental. The Senate majority leader recalled that he had come to the chamber young, idealistic and rich. Then he departed, as none of those things.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).