Politics & Policy

Howard Baker Jr., Courageous Constitutionalist

He placed America’s long-term interests over partisanship and revered the Constitution.

Many of the recent obituaries of Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader, White House chief of staff, and U.S. ambassador to Japan, quote Jim Baker’s accurate observation that Howard was a “mediator, negotiator, and moderator.” As a son of a congressmen, a son-in-law of Senator Everett Dirksen’s, and a three-term senator, Howard understood that transacting the people’s business required at least 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. On the tough votes that require leadership and political courage, he knew that the necessary majority was to be found on both sides of the aisle.

Contrary to recent suggestions by approving left-leaning news commentators and critics on the inexperienced right, Howard Baker’s interpretation of acceptable “compromise” did not entail splitting the difference or seeking a watered-down consensus. As Bob Dole observed, Howard Baker believed, along with Ronald Reagan, that achieving 70 percent or more of one’s priorities is a victory in our democracy. Above all, Howard Baker was the most civil and respectful person I have known. As a consequence, he had many friends across the political and policy spectrums who would give his views a fair and careful hearing.

Howard Baker exercised political courage wisely and with the intention to win. His views, even when they were in the minority in the Republican caucus and among Tennessee voters, were the result of careful study and measured against long-term national interests. His support for the Panama Canal Treaty, for instance, clearly damaged his prospects in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, and his leadership in securing passage of the Clean Air Act and strip-mine reclamation disappointed his friends and neighbors in the coal country of East Tennessee. Those and other unpopular votes did not occur in isolation; they were co-joined and hedged by his unrelenting support for a strong military, for nuclear power and coal gasification, and for dispensing with the prolonged environmental review of the Alyeska Pipeline.

Jim Neal, the renowned Tennessee trial lawyer and Kennedy-administration prosecutor, presciently predicted that Howard, owing to his “strong moral compass,” would be the star of the Senate Watergate Committee. From announcing at the beginning of the Watergate Committee hearings that “he would follow every lead, unrestrained by any fear of where that lead might ultimately take us,” to assembling a minority staff that discovered the existence of the Nixon Oval Office tapes, to making the motion that the Committee subpoena the tapes, Howard set aside partisan considerations and led the effort to find the answers to the key question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” In 1987, when he was the new Reagan White House chief of staff, Howard instructed me that my job as the recently appointed White House counsel was to guide and advise President Reagan through the Iran-Contra investigations without his being impeached — if the president truly did not know about the diversion of Iranian arms-sales proceeds to the Contras. Query how many current and recent senior officials would append that all-important modifier: if.

In his farewell speech to the Senate, Howard stated that “our wisest course is to follow the Constitution rather than improvise around it.” He expressed deep concern that the Clinton impeachment proceeding votes were along party lines and that we were reaping the whirlwind of the Watergate convulsion — that we had not learned our lesson but were instead enacting ill-advised and constitutionally suspect laws that were no substitute for judging the character of our leaders on a non-partisan basis.

I have no doubt that if Howard Baker and his long-time Democratic counterpart in the Senate leadership, Robert Byrd, were in the Senate today, both would be working together to put an end to the current (and any other) administration’s blatant disregard of congressionally enacted statutes. In that vein, Howard instructed me and other senior Reagan-administration lawyers to drop our objections to the Senate’s proposed “ratification record” underlying the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty; that was the Senate’s prerogative, Howard reminded me, and the president wanted the INF Treaty ratified as part of his strategy to end, and win, the Cold War.

Shortly before the 2010 midterm congressional elections, I visited with Howard Baker at his home in the mountains of East Tennessee. When I expressed concern about the dramatic swings in the recent election results, he replied: “I taught you better than that. Those swings are the self-corrections built into our republican form of government.” All of us are well-advised to reflect upon the teachings of Howard H. Baker Jr.

— Arthur B. Culvahouse was chief legislative assistant to Senator Baker from 1973 to 1976, general counsel of Baker’s 1980 presidential campaign, and White House counsel from 1987 to 1989. He practices law in Washington, D.C.